Media Standards Trust: Election Unspun: Political parties, the press, and Twitter during the 2015 UK election campaign

7 07 2015

ElectionUnspun-Cover-e1435771126164-128x125The Media Standards Trust has published Election Unspun: Political parties, the press, and Twitter during the 2015 UK election campaign. [pdf] This is a data-driven analysis of mainstream media coverage and political actors and influencers on twitter during the UK 2015 election campaign.

The report, published jointly with the Policy Institute at King’s College, London, is made up of 50 different charts and grids that map mainstream media coverage and debate on twitter over the course of the campaign.

The report concludes that the 2015 UK General Election campaign was fought over the economy. During every week of the six week official campaign the economy dominated debate on national news websites and amongst political actors and influencers on Twitter.

There were occasions when other issues gained brief prominence – such as Trident, prompted by the SNP, and Michael Fallon’s attack on Ed Miliband – but the focus always reverted back to the economy within a day or two.

The economy was also the terrain on which the Conservatives sought to win the election. From the first day of the official campaign they issued a series of statements extolling their own handling of the economy (deficit halved, 2m more people in work, apprenticeships doubled), criticizing Labour’s economic record (#sameoldLabour, #justnotuptoit) and making financial commitments should they be elected (£8bn to the NHS, right-to-buy, inheritance tax cut).

These messages were communicated consistently by the party leadership, the party press office and by the candidates themselves. 55% of political tweets by Conservative candidates were about the economy. These Conservative messages were then reported regularly and sympathetically by many national newspapers.

The Times led the campaign with the Conservatives’ claim of a ‘Labour tax bombshell’. It went even further later, declaring that a Labour government would mean an extra ‘£1,000 tax on families’ (subsequently admitted to be incorrect). The Telegraph pressed the message that both business chiefs and small businesses supported the Conservatives. The Sun published leader columns supportive of the Conservatives (35 from January to May) and anti-Labour (102 from January to May), spent days out with David Cameron and Boris Johnson, and published articles about people who had benefitted from Conservative policies.

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, tried to fight the campaign largely on the same economic territory. He, and the shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, attempted to counter the Conservatives’ economic commitments with ones of their own: on zero-hours employment; on cancelling nondom status; by promising no extra borrowing.

The leadership, however, were not as single-minded as the Conservatives, talking about Labour’s commitment to young people, to the disabled, on crime and justice, and on the NHS. Neither were Labour candidates as disciplined on Twitter as their Conservative counterparts, tweeting about subjects other than the economy (44%) such as health (25%).

The press were also far less sympathetic to Labour’s messages on the economy. For each positive front page about Labour there were two negative. ‘Miliband puts clamp-down on zero hours at heart of policy’ the Financial Times led with on Wednesday 1 April. The following day the Daily Mail’s front page read ‘Red Ed’s Zero Hours Hypocrisy’. Leader columns in the press were harder still on Labour. For every positive leader column there were almost four negative.

Immigration, which was expected to be a leading campaign issue, rarely featured prominently. Even when UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage provoked other challengers on the issue in the televised debate on Thursday 16 April, it did not excite broader discussion. Nor did it when a migrant boat capsized in the Mediterranean days later. Tweets about immigration by Conservative and Labour candidates hardly increased on both occasions. T

he negative coverage in the press, of all parties but particularly of Labour, was often highly personal. 52% of political articles in The Sun mentioned not just the party but the party leader. Just under half of those in The Mirror did the same.

On Twitter, the political agenda – as represented by 3,290 political actors and influencers – mapped surprisingly closely to the agenda on national news sites (as shown by the timelines on pages 46–49). Where there were discrepancies they were often connected to television – Twitter and TV appear to have a symbiotic relationship – or to set piece events; the press tended to be more interested in manifesto launches for example.

Although Twitter did not lead the party or press agenda, it often subverted it. When papers gave a misleading impression of polls, political influencers on Twitter pointed people to the actual results. When the Conservatives announced their ‘right-to-buy’ commitment it was challenged and deconstructed within hours by policy specialists on Twitter. When the Telegraph published a letter from 5,000 small businesses supporting the Conservatives, political influencers on Twitter discovered and publicized the news that the letter had been engineered by the Conservatives. They then helped orchestrate fact-checking of the signatories. When Ed Miliband unveiled his 8-foot ‘pledge stone’ it was mocked and ridiculed by influencers on Twitter.

This appeared to be where Twitter was at its most powerful in this election, in critiquing and puncturing the claims of political parties and mainstream media. This was not, however, how most candidates used it. Most simply used Twitter as a means to communicate their parties’ core messages rather than as a means of dialogue or to develop a personal following.

The SNP played a critical role throughout the campaign, though Nicola Sturgeon came to particular prominence following the leaders debate on Thursday 2 April. Tweets about the SNP leader amongst actors and influencers leapt forty-fold that day and never returned to their pre-debate level. The Daily Mail then led the demonization of Sturgeon with its front page on Saturday 4 April – ‘The Most Dangerous Woman in Britain’. 58 of 59 leader columns in the UK national press about the SNP during the official campaign were negative.

As the first UK election where the date was known years in advance, 7 May 2015 was bound to be carefully planned by the parties; and it was. The Conservatives were particularly well prepared and reiterated a series of messages about the economy constantly and repetitively. Labour succeeded in grabbing the agenda on occasion, most notably on non-doms, but found itself always fighting the campaign on Conservative territory.

Towards the end of the campaign national news sites and influencers on Twitter became focused on the likelihood of a hung parliament, the various potential coalitions this could lead to, and the role of the SNP. Over the final ten days there were over 400 articles referring to polling companies on national news sites. Yet in the end the result was far simpler. The Conservatives won a majority and formed the new government. Few in the press or on Twitter predicted such an outcome before 7 May.

Read the full publication: Election Unspun: Political parties, the press,and Twitter during the 2015 UK election campaign [pdf]

 


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