Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Retaliation by means of television attack advertisements is at the front-line of political campaigning in the USA. In the Presidential election between John McCain and Barak Obama, a rapid response on the networks is critical. In the UK by contrast, it is the highly-politicised British press which more often than not provides an immediate platform. A tip off from a political spin doctor, a leaked document or a signed article play a similar role in influencing the news agenda and reinforcing the campaign message. In a lecture to visiting students from Boston University(29.9.2008), Nicholas Jones described the two techniques and he predicted that the lack of controls on political advertising on the internet, meant that the British advertising industry would soon be competing with the ad industry in America to produce the most hard-hitting attack advertisements.


September 29, 2008

This year’s presidential election in the United States has been commanding so much attention in the UK’s media that some readers and viewers have been complaining about saturation coverage. Our journalists have undoubtedly been seized by the sense of change generated by Barack Obama’s campaign, a really powerful force which was so unexpectedly upstaged by the hockey mom Sarah Palin and her “pitbull in lipstick” one-liner which gave John McCain a much needed boost.

What always amazes political observers in Britain is the speed of retaliation which both the Republicans and Democrats are able to deliver through the American television networks. The advertising industry is deeply involved in the US electoral cycle and this is demonstrated so menacingly by America’s great expertise in television attack advertising. We marvel at the simplicity and directness of the advertising campaigns and the brutality of the attack. We don’t have anything like that here in the UK, not least because political advertising on television is banned, but what we do have is a highly politicised press.

Our newspaper industry is unlike any other in the United States or Europe. We have mass circulation newspapers which are truly national and which are not only highly competitive but also highly promiscuous when it comes to their political affiliations. And it is our newspapers -- and don’t forget seven of them have circulations of a million or more -- which so often tend to drive the daily narrative of the news agenda. Of course it is reporting on television and radio which captures our attention initially and obviously the news bulletins are our first source of information and of utmost importance.

But because British newspapers have such high levels of circulation and readership, the press regularly dictates the pace and the tone of the follow-up coverage and assessment. Therefore the relationship between the political parties and the press is of critical importance. Our newspapers can literally make or break political fortunes. Once a narrative is entrenched in the press, it can spread quickly to the rest of the media and once that narrative is joined up across the media outlets, the effect can be deadly. Obama has been seen, at least through the eyes of the British media, as an agent for change and there is no doubt the prospect of change excites journalists.

Here our Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been written off by many columnists and commentators. He is portrayed as a dead man walking and likewise the Labour Party is said to be doomed, heading for defeat. Many regard the Conservative leader David Cameron, like Obama, as a breath of fresh air, as the best hope for change. That narrative is becoming deeply ingrained in the British press and the influence which this has on the rest of the media terrifies the Labour Party’s propagandists. That sort of narrative explains why British political spin doctors put so much effort into trying to manipulate the newspapers. More often than not it is the press which is the front line for political attack, just as television advertising is in the States. The reason why our popular tabloid newspapers are so influential is that their coverage is often so inventive and so provocative that it becomes a talking point in itself.

In many ways the papers do the kind of job which talk radio does in the States or for that matter in a country like Australia. Take truckers as a case in point: talk radio is their source of information and comment. For lorry drivers in the UK and for our delivery drivers -- known as white van men -- that same job is performed by tabloid newspapers. As you walk around you will see workmen on building sites, at motorway service stations, or in utility trucks reading newspapers like the Sun or the Daily Mirror, papers which are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

It is the cheapness of these papers -- 30 pence for the Sun -- which explains their mass circulations. The Sun sells over three million copies a day and claims nine million readers. It is the same with mid-market newspapers like the Daily Mail, the paper that appeals to middle England -- or small town America -- and it is the Mail, with its vast readership among women, which more than any other paper drives the news agenda. The Mail always takes a view on what is happening, whether it is bad behaviour, falling public standards or political malpractice. That agenda-setting feeds through to the rest of the news media. So a topical piece in the Daily Mail will spark that day’s topical question on speech stations like BBC Radio Five Live.

You have to understand the level of penetration: the Mail sells 2.5million copies a day, more than USA Today, the biggest selling popular paper in the States. So with our population of fifty million we have the Sun claiming a readership of nine million, the Mail six or seven million. That level of readership is very high when compared with the States. So despite a population of 250 million, spread across a vast country, no daily paper in the USA has anything like the national impact of our tabloids. This explains why the British press -- which is so highly politicised -- has such an effect on our political life. Governments of the day do feel vulnerable if the press turns against them. Ministers know only too well that the narrative being generated by the press feeds very quickly into television and radio. And of course the great appeal of the British press is that it is so opinionated.

 Our columnists, commentators and cartoonists are some of the sharpest in the world and the degree to which the UK media feed off each other is so much more pronounced than in the rest of Europe or the USA. An illustration of the vitality and appeal of British newspapers -- and their ability to deliver news coverage with an agenda -- is the rapidly increasing audience which they attract on line. Surprisingly the websites of our leading newspapers get only around a third of their hits from within the UK. (Daily Telegraph 36 per cent, The Times 36 per cent, Daily Mail 29 per cent). Two thirds of their users are overseas and overwhelmingly they are American, attracted no doubt by the breadth and depth of British coverage of American politics and world affairs.

Because the papers are so opinionated and so partisan, politicians here in the UK compete for their attention and the rewards can make or break the government of the day. Our former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had the overwhelming support of the press at critical moments in her career. So did the former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. But equally when they lost the support of the press their fall from power was accelerated. Our Sunday newspapers have an even greater impact than the national dailies. We have a great tradition of Sunday newspaper reading. Sales are higher for the Sundays and so is the readership. And because the Sundays come at the start of a new week, and because they have always been used as a political platform, the government of the day and their opponents -- and especially their spin doctors -- put an inordinate effort into trying to influence the Sunday news agenda.

Last Sunday was a prime example with the first day of the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham providing a perfect illustration of how the spinners and papers compete with each other for the best story. The most over-used word is “Exclusive” and that world holds the key to understanding this phenomenon. In the crowded and highly competitive Sunday market, the political correspondents are desperate. They know they will be judged by their editors not perhaps on the soundness of their judgement or on their reliability, but on their ability to deliver exclusive stories. And the spin doctors have realised this. If they can hand over an exclusive to a hungry journalist they are more likely to get better exposure and sympathetic treatment and therefore more likely they hope to set the agenda for the rest of the news media.

Just look at the competing stories in yesterday’s papers (28.9.2008) -- all exclusives of course -- which pre-viewed the Conservative Conference.

Sunday Times: “Tories plan to create 5,000 new schools”.

Mail on Sunday: “Tory watchdog to curb Treasury’s reckless spending”.

Sunday Express: “Cameron: I’ll curb Muslim fanatics”.

News of the World: “We’ll stop UK going broke”.

Sunday Telegraph: “Tory debt plan as Brown narrows poll gap”.

Three of the Sunday newspapers were not so enamoured by the hype of the Tory spin doctors.

Independent on Sunday: “Can we trust Cameron”.

Observer: “How short-selling profited the Tories”.

Boston University - 12

Sunday Mirror: “50,000 abandon the Tories”.

The hope of every journalist and publicist is that their stories will feed through to radio and television and get followed up in the news bulletins and programmes. Talking about the response and reaction of the newspapers is a staple ingredient of current affairs programmes. Late night television programmes -- like the BBC’s Newsnight -- make a point of showing viewers the front pages of next morning’s newspapers.

What the papers say about significant events is often news in itself, so are their front pages when they have important exclusives. Overnight the preparation of the morning news bulletins will be heavily influenced by the press. On a normal news day no editor would dare decide the running order without first seeing how and what the papers are reporting. Once the first editions begin arriving in newsrooms from nine or ten o’clock in the evening, they tend to mark the start of the next news cycle, an all important moment for the continuous news channels. Breakfast shows on television and radio would be lost if they did not have their segments on what the newspapers are saying.

While the political propagandists of the USA and the UK have the same objective -- to improve the standing of their own party and attack their opponents -- the tools at their disposal are different. Rapid-response attack advertisements on the American networks are at the front line for the Republicans and Democrats. The line of retaliation being used in the ads will feed through to the rest of the media.

In Britain that rapid response is more likely to be delivered through an exclusive in one of the newspapers. A spin doctor’s tip off, a leaked document, or a signed article by a politician can be used to regain the initiative and that will be reinforced by trying to secure the key follow-up interviews on radio and television. There is no doubt that our spin doctors have developed considerable expertise in understanding how to manipulate and co-ordinate a message across the media outlets. But equally when it goes against them, that joined-up coverage can be disastrous for the political parties. Once a damaging narrative takes off it can develop a life of its own. Take the contribution of our columnists and commentators. Their share of editorial space has grown and grown over the years and their be all and end all is to be provocative. They love nothing more than to build people up and then knock them down: from zero to hero and from hero to zero is what it is all about.

And make no mistake they can be pretty mean if they want to be. A perfect illustration of this vicious streak is the treatment of “Waity Kaitie”, girlfriend to Prince William and a possible future Queen. The tabloids are obsessed with Kate Middleton, she is part of the soap opera of modern royal reporting which captivates many Brits and fascinates people around the world. Just look at the number of its for websites on royal trivia. Earlier this month Kate organised a charity roller disco and turned up wearing hot pants and sequins. The pop papers were in their element but Kate came a cropper. According to the Daily Mail, there she lay “sprawled on her back, legs splayed and pink wheels still spinning” (19.9.2008). Another field day for the tabloids. Then the columnists returned their regular theme: that it is time “Waity Katie” found some worthwhile to do. The Mail has been grinding away at this narrative for months. “Queen: Kate should get a proper job” was one front-page exclusive in the Mail on Sunday (1.6.2008), a theme it reworked later in the summer: “Queen wants Kate to get a charity job” (24.8.2008).

So hitting the deck at her charity roller disco was cue for yet more poison. It was no surprise that it was the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir was the first of the columnists to put the boot in, describing Kate as an “idle Sloane in spangles, whose dizzy hedonism and mindless pursuit of party fun” who needed to get a proper job and “make a contribution”. (Daily Mail 19.9.2008) No doubt that line would go down a treat in Middle England or Main Street. Again it was no surprise that over the next few days the rest of the women columnists followed suit.  If Prince William’s girlfriend had a shred of self respect she would use her influence to “genuinely help people in need”. (Sun 20.9. 2008).

The power of the columnists and commentators cannot be ignored and we have to admit that many people like opinionated journalism. It is when that mean streak feeds into political commentary that we need to be on guard. Are the columnists, in their denigration of the women in politics, adding to the cynicism and lack of trust in politicians? Our newspapers have turned the role of women in the US Presidential election into another soap opera: Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Cindy McCain and now Sarah Palin. They have all had massive exposure in the British press. Its Palin who’s got the real wow factor.

Take yesterday’s papers: the News of the World and the Mail on Sunday bought up exclusive pictures on Sarah in a Baywatch-style red swimsuit at a Miss Alaska contest in 1984. “Pitbull in a swimsuit” (Mail on Sunday 28.9.2008) or “From Baywatch to White House” in the News of the World which put the Palin “beauty pageant video” on its website. Here again you see the innovation of the British press: it is not a television station that bought up the exclusive rights to the video but a newspaper website. The role the American wives have played at the US conventions has certainly had an impact here.

Last week the Labour Party broke new ground when Sarah Brown became the first party leader’s spouse to introduce a conference speech by her husband, Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The initial response from the political sketch writers was one of praise: Sarah Brown had given the conference that emotional tug which her husband could not have delivered. But it wasn’t long before the poison began to surface in the coverage as the columnists began to argue that while Sarah’s introduction was as headline-grabbing as Michelle’s introduction of Barack Obama, the Prime Minister’s wife had nonetheless “taken a step back for women”. By acting as “her fella’s warm-up” she had given in to the celebrity culture. (Janet Street-Porter, Independent on Sunday 28.9.2008).

Another prominent woman in the Labour Party under the cosh of the columnists in Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, who is resigning from the cabinet. By justifying her decision on the grounds that she wanted to spend more time with her family -- she has four young children -- she had struck a “mortal blow against 30-odd years of feminist struggle”. (Liz Jones, Mail on Sunday, 28.9.2008). We will all be waiting now to see how Samantha Cameron, wife of the Conservative Party leader David Cameron, fares at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Much of the coverage is likely to be along party political lines: newspapers on the left like the Daily Mirror will be snide and nasty. I am not sure about the papers on the right. I think the Daily Mail will be in the “zero to hero” mode and that Samantha will have a much easier ride than Sarah Brown or Ruth Kelly.

Why this opinionated style of reporting matters so much is because it can be all pervasive, creating a narrative that can be nigh on impossible to derail. Having a highly politicised press is seen by many constitutionalists as a significant safeguard, helping to hold unpopular governments to account. But once the newspapers turn against the government of the day in a big -- and sustained -- way, that can be fatal. In America it is the advertising industry which creates and promotes those simple messages through attack advertisements on television. I predict that with the growth of advertising on the internet -- where attack ads are already flourishing -- we could see a fundamental change in political campaigning in Britain come the next general election which will have to be held by the spring of 2010.

Our newspaper websites have begun to turn the corner, they are creating an income stream which pays their way. Obviously the revenue is nothing like as much as for newspaper advertising but the investment is beginning to pay dividends. The newspaper websites are self regulated and the fact that they can be politically partisan -- unlike mainstream broadcasting which must remain politically impartial -- will open the door to new forms of political advertising. Social networking sites like You Tube and My Space show the ingenuity of their users in manipulating video. Our political websites are demonstrating the same kind of flair and the freedom of political advertising on the web does mean we could get American-style attack advertisements by the back door.

Our newspapers are so political -- and their owners are so determined to exercise political influence and patronage -- I am sure we will soon see our advertising agencies matching the rapid response of the ad industry in American. At present the input of our advertising agencies is restricted to newspaper advertisements and posters. But their ingenuity isn’t in doubt: “Labour isn’t working” -- was an advertisement used against the last Labour government in the 1970s and the headline was superimposed over a dole queue. It was the Conservatives again who hit the jackpot in the 1997 general election with a campaign -- hastily withdrawn -- which pictured Tony Blair with devil eyes over the line “New Labour, New Danger”. Up until now the line from political parties is that they remain against political advertisements on terrestrial television. But my hunch is that they will turn a blind eye to political advertising on the internet.