Nick Jones
Just as the 2010 general election was a game changer for the political parties of Britain – paving the way for the first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s – so it was for the news media.  But not quite in the way the pundits had been predicted. Three televised debates between the three party leaders transformed the dynamics of the campaign.  But political bloggers had nothing like the influence which was being suggested on their behalf.  Instead it was social networking sites like Twitter which had greater impact on the flow of the reportage. And newspapers retained their long-standing ability to influence the pace of an election campaign through their investment in the new phenomenon of daily opinion polls. An inquest is still going on across the political divides as to why David Cameron failed to get the outright majority which had initially seemed likely.  A lack of focus in the Tory campaign and Cameron’s failure to deliver commanding performances in the leaders’ debates were said to have been just two of the factors; also coming into play was the strength of Gordon Brown’s fight back in the closing stages of the election.   Another all-important factor was the lingering anger of so many voters over the unbelievable greed of some MPs and their abuse parliamentary expenses.  This contempt of established politicians – feeding into the wider distrust of the political process – created a floating protest vote. In the 2009 elections for the European Parliament, the beneficiaries were UKIP – which pushed Labour into third place – and also the BNP which gained its first two seats.  In the general election it seemed that Independent candidates – such as Esther Rantzen in Luton South – might capture the support of those voters who wanted to give the established parties a kicking.  But instead the buzz of protest alighted first on Nick Clegg, in response to his commanding performance in the first televised debate, and then somehow morphed into a more general protest against what Clegg called the broken politics of the ‘tired two old parties’ of the past.  Come polling day many voters seemed unfazed by the prospect of a hung parliament and more than ready to cast aside traditional loyalties. I think that volatility on the part of the electorate was influenced by the news media, especially once the televised debates obliterated much of the traditional election coverage. What seemed to happen was that television was dominant during the immediate build up to each debate and then during the ninety minutes of each programme.  But once the leaders began their live confrontation with each other, social networking sites like Twitter burst into life and it was the hectic messaging among the Twitterati which provided the first instant reaction and this then started to feed into the wider coverage. Television commentators immediately began referring to the responses emerging in the networking forums.   Waiting in the wings were newspapers like the Sun which had commissioned instant opinions polls and were ready to try to seize back the agenda.  The results of their surveys were headline news.  Two days after the first debate seven opinion polls in the Sunday papers were indicating an unprecedented surge for the Liberal Democrats – one poll had them ahead of the Conservatives and another suggested Nick Clegg was the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill. It was in response to the unprecedented surge that the Tory press launched its demolition job on Clegg on the morning of the second debate. Polling companies were able to gauge opinion instantly online. Through the sophistication of their sampling techniques they could deliver highly creditable results which changed the dynamics of the way the campaign was being reported.   This interaction with respondents on online – as with the live interaction with television audiences – began to have a profound effect.  During the course of the 2005 general election campaign there were fifty opinion polls but with daily polling that number was exceeded many times over during the contest of 2010.  For an outlay of £5,000 a newspaper can commission an opinion poll and create its own headlines.  For example one of the daily YouGov polls in the Sunday Times – which in February put Labour only two points behind the Conservatives – was such a surprise it caused a run on the pound.  So the prediction that newspapers would have far less influence in 2010 than in previous elections was perhaps off beam.  So were the pre-election claims about the impact of the blogosphere. Tony Blair’s celebrated pollster Philip Gould predicted online political activists would become ‘a giant autonomous force’, like ‘an army of the night’ influencing the course of the campaign.   Gould subsequently agreed his prediction proved to be more than a little premature...as was also the case with another infamous Labour blogger Derek Draper. Draper suggested that during the thirty days of the election campaign, stories from the blogosphere would dominate coverage for ‘three or four days at least’. To be fair to Draper he made his prediction before broadcasters reached their historic agreement on staging three televised debates but it just shows how fast the media scene is changing and how it is not turning out as we might have expected. Where did I get it wrong? I thought newspaper websites would play a role, especially with highly-politicised audio visual output. Again it didn’t happen. Even Suntalk – the Sun’s online radio station – was far more restrained than I had expected. In the 2009 European elections Suntalk conducted live political interviews while voting was taking place and its presenter Jon Gaunt urged voters to follow the Sun’s advice and vote Conservative.   On polling day in the general election, Suntalk again made a virtue of being the only radio station talking politics while people were voting but in the hour I tuned in Gaunt didn’t keep referring to the Sun’s front page and its Obama-like picture of David Cameron with the headline he’s ‘Our Only Hope’.  But I remain convinced the media proprietors of Britain are as determined as ever to exercise political influence, especially during elections, and their investment in daily opinion polling gave an additional impetus to the televised debates which we hadn’t quite expected. (Nicholas Jones spoke at the annual meeting of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, 26.6.2010)