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Study Notes

General Election 1997 - Role of the Media

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 20 Nov 2017

This study note explores key features of the roll of the media in the 1997 General Election.

Opinion Polls

1992 had been an election which the opinion pollsters would rather forget. Many had predicted that Labour would win whereas, in the end, the Conservatives won, all be it with a very small majority. However, in 1997 there was no real risk of the polls getting it so wrong that they might predict the wrong winner: Labour was far ahead. There was some disagreement between the different pollsters (with Labour polling between 43 and 53%% and the Conservatives between 28% and 33%). The polls had moved closer by the months before the election: in 1996 one poll put Labour over 60% and the Conservatives down at 21%. In the first year or two of Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party they regularly polled over 50% and the Conservatives rarely got out of the 20s.

It is worth bearing in mind that Labour were polling consistently in the 40s under John Smith’s leadership too and did hit 50% on occasion. The bigger change was the decline in the Conservative vote from the high 30s in 1992 to rarely leaving the 20s within a couple of years. As such a bigger factor than Labour’s change of leadership and direction might have been the unpopularity of the government, the impression that they were deeply divided over Europe and the various scandals that kept rocking the party.

Media Bias

Some Labour thinkers put 1992’s defeat down to the role of the media. Some parts of the media also took credit for it. The Sun famously ran with the headline “It was the Sun what won it”. Blair made a conscious decision to court The Sun’s notorious owner, Rupert Murdoch. After meeting him, he won the prize: The Sun decided to back Labour in the 1997 election, while another of Murdoch’s traditionally-conservative papers, The Times, chose not to back either party, but was more positive about Labour than the Conservatives.

Some argue that the impact of the Sun might be overstated. The paper has backed the winning party in every UK general election since the 1970s. It had been a Labour paper until famously switching to the Conservatives in 1979. However, it could be argued that the Sun is just good at predicting election results and backing winners. It is not clear that their backing actually has that big an impact on the final result. 2010 is sometimes presented as an exception to the Sun’s power over election results, as Cameron failed to win a majority, despite the Sun having loudly switched support back from Labour to the Conservatives.

In 1997, Blair obviously thought the support of the Sun important enough to go to Australia to meet with Murdoch. Furthermore, the biggest increase in Labour voters came among Sun readers, while the biggest collapse in Conservative voters came among readers of the Times. While Times readers still backed the Conservatives more than Labour, over half the readers of the Sun backed Labour.

Actually, while readers of the Sun, the Star, the Guardian, the Independent and the Mirror all backed Labour (with the biggest support coming from Mirror readers, followed by Guardian readers), The Express, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Financial Times and the Times all had large Conservative leads among their readers. One possible conclusion is that, by this election, daily newspapers were beginning to lose their significance in effecting voting behaviour with people increasingly getting their political news (and therefore views) from television news.

Spin Doctors

Another significant factor in the 1997 General Election was the impact of spin doctors. They were not an entirely new thing: politicians had employed press advisors for many years, and Sir Bernard Ingham had famously carried out the role for Margaret Thatcher. 

However, New Labour approached the press in a new way, seeking out a message, keeping spokespeople “on message” and trying to manipulate the press and the television news to put across the message of the day. The key figure on the Labour side who performed this role was Alistair Campbell. Campbell and other figures like Peter Mandelson, carefully courted journalists and editors from across the various media and ensured that they got stories ready-packaged that would put across the message of the day. It was a well-oiled media machine, driven by focus group and poll data to try and ensure that the Labour Party was seen to care about the issues that the public cared about. In government, the relationship between Campbell and the political correspondents of the various daily newspapers became a much more combative and aggressive one, but between 1994 and 1997, journalists were wooed, flattered and rewarded with access, interviews and good stories. Both main parties have tried to use similar tactics in the years since, but the general public is much more alert to spin now than they were then and journalists are more keen to expose spin and media manipulation rather than respond to it.

As such, it is hard to imagine an election quite like 1997 happening again. An election which took place when the economy was doing fine and where the opposition party was far from promising enormous and radical change and yet there was an enormous swing from the government to the opposition right across the country. In many ways it was a media election; an election where the Labour Party managed the media and the political news stories of the day much more effectively than the Conservatives and reaped the rewards.

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