Was it the Sun Wot Won It? How the media can influence political elections in the UK

Newspaper front-pages on the day of election in 2010. (Image Credit: ceridwen | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

In 1992, after the unexpected election victory of the UK Conservative Party and John Major as Prime Minister, the tabloid newspaper ‘The Sun’ famously ran a front-page headline declaring that “It’s the Sun Wot Won It”.

The tabloid backed the Conservatives and regularly ran scathing front-page stories about the opposition party, Labour, and its leader Neil Kinnock. This included a front-page article urging readers not to vote for him on the day of the election. 

While the idea that it was The Sun wot won it in 1992 has been disputed, the declaration is indicative of the influence that the tabloid press had on elections in the UK and how papers would often explicitly back one party over another. 

Following this, the next opposition leader, Tony Blair, decided to court the leaders of the tabloid press, particularly Rupert Murdoch. The Sun—one of Murdoch’s papers–went on to back Blair in the 1997 election, in which the Labour Party won a landslide victory. Research has found that The Sun’s backing shifted around 2% of the popular vote towards Labour in 1997. While this was not enough to determine the whole election, this shows the significant influence of just one tabloid newspaper. 

Labour notably removed commitments to limit the monopolisation of media ownership from their campaign in 1997. In return, Murdoch’s press empire provided the Labour government with favourable coverage about their administration’s handling of controversial topics, such as the Iraq war.

During his time as Prime Minister, Blair got so close to Murdoch that he became the godfather of one of the media mogul’s children. 

Tony Blair (third from the right) receiving an award alongside Rupert Murdoch (second from the right) in 2008. (Image Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1s | Wikimedia Commons | US Public Domain)

In the lead-up to the 2010 election, Murdoch’s papers removed their backing from Labour under new leadership. The party then lost. In this case, The Sun’s backing could have been enough to determine the result.  

In 2015, Labour was backed by only 11% of the national newspaper market in the election, with 57% supporting the Conservatives. 95% of tabloid editorials in the lead-up to the election were explicitly anti-Labour. This bias led to memorable coverage of Labour leader Ed Miliband eating a sandwich. The Conservatives, under David Cameron, won.

Before the 2015 election, Ed Miliband had committed to supporting independent press regulation and the breaking up of media monopolies. In response, Murdoch was said to have explicitly called for editors of his newspapers to be more critical of Miliband. This election was said to be yet another time that “the political views of billionaires and corporations continued to set the agenda”. 

To avoid this fate, many political leaders find themselves needing to placate media moguls and bow to their whims in order to get elected and stay in power. The influence that UK newspapers can have on public sentiment means that it is not uncommon for Prime Ministers and political leaders to meet regularly and have very close relationships with members of the media.

In response to a question regarding his disdain for the EU, Murdoch was once quoted as saying, “When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice”.

Despite writing to the Guardian to deny saying this, it is true that he, and other media leaders, have the attention of prominent political figures. In 2017, Murdoch—who also owns Fox News—was said to be having daily phone calls with the newly elected US President, Donald Trump.  

Editor of News of the World in the 1990s, Eben Black has been quoted as saying that it is beneficial for Prime Ministers to maintain regular contact with the media. Black stated that newspapers have the “actual power, because what they do is what the public sees. They are the filter.”

Photo taken of a protestor at an anti-Brexit march held in London in 2019. (Image Credit: Dom Pates | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 DEED)

However, things appear to be changing. 

Readership of national newspapers is down, with all national print newspapers experiencing month-by-month declines in circulation. People in the UK are increasingly obtaining their news from social media.

Online news sources are eroding the monopolisation of the political agenda that national newspapers have held for years. In the months before the 2017 election, the tabloid press vehemently attacked Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, commentators were positive about how his higher share of the vote—compared to 2015—signalled the diminishing power of the tabloid press in determining election outcomes. Nevertheless, he still lost.

During election periods, the importance of online political campaigning is increasingly clear. In the 2019 election, UK political parties together spent just under £9 million on Facebook and Google adverts. 

However, fake messages are very easily spread online and fears of echo chambers further polarising political issues are not unfounded. Isaac Levido was the architect of the successful 2019 Conservative Party campaign to elect Boris Johnson. He had previously led a right-wing political coalition in Australia to victory using Facebook to spread misinformation about a ‘Death Tax’. Parties are increasingly understanding the importance of effective online campaigning, and hiring experienced people or companies to help. 

In the lead up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, the Leave campaign hired consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica. The firm used data from millions of Facebook users to create highly-targeted online advertising in support of Brexit. This led the Information Commissioner’s Office’s (ICO)—an independent UK regulatory body—to charge Facebook its highest fine possible in light of this significant breach of data.

Former Cambridge Analytica employee Chris Wylie exposed the breach. He claimed that the adverts targeted people who were more vulnerable to disinformation and prone to conspiratorial thinking. He attributes the narrow victory of the Leave campaign to this strategy. 

Researchers have discussed the “hateful and divisive” themes of the Leave campaign, and how they were amplified by “social media echo chambers and filter bubbles”. As political campaigns move increasingly online, instead of opening up avenues for debate, there is a risk of creating increasingly polarised political spheres. 

Ofcom research in 2023 shows that most people in the UK receive the majority of their news via TV, online sources, and social media. Research suggests that the UK public has changed the way that they consume news, only scanning headlines and watching increasingly shorter clips. This could alter the types of stories that politicians put out to gain the attention of the public in the lead-up to elections.  

Current Conservative Party leader, and Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak (centre) walks alongside current Labour Party leader Keir Starmer (third from the left). The two will go head-to-head in this year’s election. (Image Credit: Jessica Taylor | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 2.0 DEED)

During the recent Conservative Party conference in early October 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s comments about transgender people received significant media attention. The emphasis that the party gave to the issue, a matter of ‘common sense’, suggests that in the run-up to the next election, similar topics could be used in pursuit of electoral gains. These topics can stoke “divisive, US-style “culture wars” in the UK.  

However, the lasting influence of the national newspapers shouldn’t be underestimated. Fewer people who voted to leave the EU obtained their news online. In 2016, the readership figures of pro-Brexit newspapers were four times higher than the readership of pro-Remain newspapers. Boris Johnson’s administration maintained a close relationship with the press and current Labour leader Keir Starmer has been reported as having ‘by no means rare’ contact with Murdoch. With many papers embracing their online presence, politicians may be understanding that the influence of these papers will likely persist. 

The UK will have a general election in 2024. This will be the first Prime Minister that the general public has elected in three Prime Ministers. This will be the first election without Rupert Murdoch as head of an influential newspaper group since the 1970s. This will be the election where online campaigning will count more than it ever has before. 

Commentators question how election campaign teams will navigate the new media landscape, one that is “structurally geared towards sensationalism and conflict”. The Brexit campaign was won with just a couple of central policies: immigration and NHS funding.

While parties are choosing their central policies for the upcoming election, they have much to consider: echo chambers, polarisation, and social media algorithms. But hopefully, adhering to the desires of powerful media executives will be considerably less important this time. 

By Kiera Barry

January 23, 2024

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