Throughout my adult life, one assumption has dominated British politics; that the media, in its various forms, held the keys the Downing Street. Politicians of all parties have fawned to newspaper proprietors and editors, complained about BBC bias, and debated which newspapers or television stations wielded the most influence.
No one doubted that, as Tony Blair put it in his ‘feral beast’ speech in 2007, “We paid inordinate attention… to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media… a vast aspect of our jobs today… is coping with the media, its sheer scale, weight and constant hyperactivity.”
But is that true today, as media consumption habits, particularly among the young, are changing so dramatically? Continuing our research into some of the key communications trends underpinning this election, freuds set out to answer a question: Is the ‘feral beast’ on its last legs?
More than half of Ukip voters don’t trust the media.
First of all, we asked whether voters trust the media. The results, which reflect earlier studies in this area, suggest that one in three don’t. But it is the underlying numbers that are really revealing. One in four Conservative voters don’t trust the media (24 per cent), compared to more than half of Ukip voters (53 per cent).
Which helps to explain why, despite the torrent of negative comments towards Nigel Farage and his party from all quarters of Britain’s press, his support remains (so far, at least) surprisingly solid.
More surprisingly for me, young people are significantly more trusting of the media than most. Just one in four under 40’s say they don’t trust the media – compared to one in three (36 per cent) of those aged 40+. One could speculate that this is because younger people don’t consume so much of it.
There are some interesting facts buried in the numbers as well, including the revelation that readers of the Sun are considerably more trusting of the media than those who prefer other papers. Only 23 per cent of their readers are distrusting, compared to 32-37 per cent of Times, Mail, Mirror and Guardian readers.
The second key question we asked was which type of media – TV, newspaper, online, social media – people in the UK use for different types of information, and what sources are preferred for: the policies of political parties, the characters and values of our politicians, and the views that others hold about politics.
This was where it started to become clear that the role of the media is changing in this election. Taking all ages together, what was the most popular source of information for all three factors? Online news sources, and social media for opinion. The traditional print media was a minority player by comparison.
Older voters are hugely reliant on television to form opinions about politicians.
Young people (aged 18-24) relied almost totally (79 per cent) on online news sources for information about policies, and overwhelmingly (59 per cent) on social media for the opinions of others. This demonstrates not only a fundamental change in the way that a new generation consumes news (and the decline of TV as an information source), but also their increasing reliance on crowd sourcing for opinion forming.
Older people, by contrast, are, unsurprisingly, more likely to use print and TV for everything. When they want the opinions of others, they turn more to traditional media than their peers, listening to commentators and columnists.
They are hugely reliant on television to form opinions about the values and characters of politicians, which is why tonight’s debate could have an effect on this election – even at this late stage.
Given that older people are more likely to vote than the young, this explains why the election battle buses are full of television crews, and all but the most sycophantic print press journalists are excluded not only from the bus, but from most of the staged managed events that the party leaders spend their days attending.
Last, we asked which had the most influence over each voter’s ultimate choice on how to cast their vote: party policies; the character and values of politicians; the opinions of others; or the fundamental views of each voter.
Here we found a profound and significant change. Young people are twice as likely to be influenced by a party’s policies as by their own fundamental beliefs, whereas with older people it’s exactly the other way round. Older voters are twice as likely to decide how to vote based on their fundamental beliefs than any views formed by paying attention to policies.
This research reinforces the belief that younger Britons are not remotely tribal.
This bears out my belief that the old tribes of British politics – families and communities that always voted a particular way – are falling apart. Younger Britons are not remotely politically tribal. Many are disengaged from the political process, but the votes of those who do go to the polls are genuinely up for grabs.
This would suggest that the media consumption habits of younger Britons are in fact even more significant, because it’s their votes that are more likely to be available to the party best able to convince them that it’s on their side.
This is strange because all three main parties, perhaps thinking about the likely low turnout among younger voters, have targeted much of their policy firepower on attracting the older generation, and blithely ignored the way in which younger people are losing out to their parents economically.
Of course, all this comes with several important caveats. First, this research is by definition a measurement of media influence that people are prepared to admit to. They may be exaggerating, or being influenced by media in ways of which they are unaware. But even allowing for that it still shows some significant trends.
This research does not capture the print media’s ability to set the news agenda.
Second, this research massively underestimates the influence of the print media, because it is does not capture their ability to set the agenda. For example, (deleted academics – who? Needn’t mention?) the letter from British business leaders in support of the Conservatives, which was published in the Daily Telegraph, was then followed up by other papers, broadcasters, and online.
Part of the reason for this influence was captured by my favourite fact from last week: the BBC buys more copies of the Daily Mail each year – 78,463 – than it does of any other paper. Campaigning editors can, through energy and determination, take the rest of Britain’s media along with them, whether they’d admit it or not.
But even allowing for this, it might appear on the surface that the ability of traditional media to dictate the outcome of elections in Britain is diminishing. At the same time, however, a new less tribal younger generation are searching for a political and ethical home which none of the parties has managed as yet to offer them.
It follows that media which can reach them, either directly or by influencing other formats, might, after all, significantly influence the outcome of this exceptionally close election. So sorry Tony, but the feral beast isn’t quite dead yet.
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,594 adults with 166 18-24 year olds, 410 25-39s, 542 40-59s and 476 60+ year olds. Fieldwork was undertaken between 23rd – 24th April 2015. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
Within this sample there were 208 Daily Mail/Scottish Mail readers; 202 Sun readers; 105 Guardian readers; 114 Mirror/Daily Record readers; and 78 Times readers. Some of the figures referred to have been rebased according to freuds’ independent analysis.