After a lifetime’s interest in the way the news media can shape the outcome of general election campaigns, I am having to come to terms with a sea change in the way politics are reported and rethink so much of what I have written in the past.
Dramatic falls in the daily sales of Conservative-supporting newspapers -- and our near total reliance on smart phones and laptops -- has been transformative.
Increasingly news is communicated in headlines and delivered on social media, reducing the influence of carefully crafted newspaper campaigns and the impact of their front pages and political commentary.
Not only is it becoming harder to buy a newspaper as fewer shops have them on sale, but their visibility on television programmes is also noticeably diminishing as press reviews fall out of fashion on both tv and radio.
No one can doubt the flair and ingenuity of press campaigns, and the determination of editors and commentators to continue to demonstrate their power to influence politicians and to force them respond to the causes they promote.
Rishi Sunak, clearly in thrall to Tory media strategists, has given his endorsement to the push by the Daily Mail and Sun to champion motorists and traders assailed by the annoyance of low traffic neighbourhoods and the cost of scrapping or retrofitting cars and vans to ensure exhaust emissions are in line with ultra-low emissions zones.
Supportive front pages and commentary are a comfort blanket for a beleaguered Prime Minister and no more so than after the Conservatives’ two by-election defeats in July and a narrow escape in Uxbridge.
His ploy to keep friendly newspapers on side was all too apparent in his promise to join the tabloids’ anti-motorist campaign.
“I am on motorists’ side, says PM as he orders a review of anti-car schemes” was the Sunday Telegraph’s exclusive front-page splash as he tried to ratchet up Keir Starmer’s political discomfort in the wake of Sadiq Khan’s insistence of extending the ULEZ zone to outer London. (Sunday Telegraph, 30.7.2023)
Next day the Sun congratulated Sunak for his “stand up for motorists’ call” and its front page backed him all the way: “Now get a move on, Rishi”. (Sun, 31.7.2023)
But is the forthcoming battle over the “war on motorists” nothing more than “an invention of right-wing newspapers” as transport correspondent Christian Wolmar suggested (The Guardian, 1.8.2023)
His fellow columnist Peter Walker speculated on the degree to which such strategies simply appealed to the Conservatives’ core vote, (The Guardian, 2.8.2023)
Over the last 50 years the Tory press has damaged, sometimes irreparably, Labour’s electoral prospects.
The tabloids trashed Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation in the 2019 general election and excelled themselves in backing Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” campaign.
Historically trade union bashing has been a favourite general election weapon, but although the country has experienced a level of strike action not seen for 30 years, recent disputes have not built up the catalogue of damaging images that lived on from the 1978-79 “Winter of Discontent”.
Women now lead the country’s largest trade unions, and the tabloids are hard pressed to trash them as militant, out-of-control union barons. Just look at another dramatic change: young workers predominate in today’s peaceful picket lines, radiating their stoic enthusiasm.
Opinion polls are another key: health workers and teachers retain high levels of public sympathy and support and are no easy target.
Even so it is inevitable that the Tory tabloids will try desperately to hark back to the story lines of uncollected rubbish and bodies waiting to be buried: “We regret to announce that this country is returning to the 1970s” (Sun, 20.6.2022)
But the strength of the megaphone of the Conservatives’ shock troops is weaker than ever before.
Sales of the Daily Mail and Sun are falling off a cliff: in a decade, the Mail has dropped from over 2 million a day to around 600,000; the Sun from 3 million to something similar.
Their front pages and endorsements regularly made news in themselves but now with far less frequency than in their heyday.
The dramatic collapse in newspaper sales has led to a costly shake-up in their distribution. Wholesalers WH Smith have franchised out delivery. It can cost a newsagent up to £70 a week before a single copy has been sold over the counter, hence they are no longer profitable for more and more retailers.
As late as the 1960s boys had to queue up for a newspaper round. Now deliverers often need a car as they are delivering in every other street rather than to every other house.
Press reviews, once a staple of radio and television news bulletins and programmes, have also taken a hit.
Sky News and other independent channels do offer late night reviews based on front pages, but BBC Radio 4 and Today have abandoned lengthy press reviews; the BBC News Channel appears to have given up on the newspapers altogether.
Instead of a lengthy press review – often in the company of newspaper editors and commentators – all we see now is a quick flick of front pages at the top of the Sunday morning Laura Kuenssberg politics programme.
National newspapers are doing all they can to build up their websites, but coverage of contentious issues is often restrained when compared with what they say and reproduce in print.
Political strategists and commentators alike will have to go on trying to come to terms with the wild west frontier of social media – an even greater challenge for a journalist who has devoted so much time trying to monitor the relationship between politicians, the press and broadcasting.