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It's The Study Wot Worked It Out

28 Aug 2019  |  Raymond Snoddy 
It's The Study Wot Worked It Out

Raymond Snoddy examines new research that claims the long-running boycott of the pro-Brexit Sun newspaper helped cut Euroscepticism in Merseyside. Plus: Dorothy Byrne's feisty, funny and intelligent MacTaggart lecture

Researchers have toiled for decades if not centuries to try to figure out the relationship between media consumption, particularly of newspapers, and political attitudes and voting intentions.

On the whole they have come up dry. Voters buy particular newspapers because they reflect their existing opinions and if there is any effect at all it is more likely to reinforce rather than change attitudes.

In general elections conventional wisdom suggests, at least until recent outbreaks of instability, voting intentions have more to do with class or family traditions than the media.

Still the question remains largely unanswered – does media shape public opinion or is it the other way around?

Laboratory experiments and short-term studies of media consumption and their effects have been inconclusive at best.

But many, while dismissing blowhard claims such as It Was The Sun Whot Won It during general election campaigns, have long wondered whether opinions could be influenced over longer periods on more amorphous issues such as attitudes to the European Union.

Dozens of negative front page splashes on immigrants and on the European Commission year after year in The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express, and phoney stories about bananas and condoms in the Daily Telegraph by its Brussels correspondent Boris Johnson, must have a drip-drip effect on readers mustn’t they?

Almost certainly, but proving it is a different matter.

Now for the first time we have not definitive proof, but a strong indication that years of negativity may indeed have help to pave the way for the Brexit vote in the 2016 Referendum.

Strangely enough it is the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster in which 96 people died that has provided researchers Florian Hoos and Daniel Bischof with “quasi-experimental evidence from England” on tabloid media influence on Euroscepticism.

Until 1983 to 1989 the British Social Attitudes survey found that opposition to the EU on Merseyside was as strong, if not stronger, than in other comparable areas in the north of England.

Then there was a dramatic turn of events which had nothing to do with the EU. There was the enduring boycott of The Sun newspaper, because of its inaccurate and insulting coverage of the disaster, effectively blaming the behaviour of Liverpool supporters for their own deaths.

The Sun circulation dropped from an estimated 55,000 a day on Merseyside to 12,000, although The Sun has never confirmed any figures.

It is likely that most of those readers who wanted a popular tabloid with lots of football coverage moved to the Daily Mirror.

“The case of The Sun boycott in Merseyside is a rare opportunity to study the effects of a sustained long-term campaign by an important medium on an issue of great policy importance,” the researchers say.

In 1989, 34 percent of Merseysiders wanted to leave the EU, compared with 25 percent in comparable regions of England.

In 2004, when the Social Attitudes stopped recording where people lived, the numbers were 14 and 18 percent respectively.

In the Referendum Liverpool voted 58 percent Remain and Merseyside 51- 49 percent Remain.

When all the material is put together and tested against a number of models the researchers believe there was an 11 percentage point drop in Eurosceptism on Merseyside.

Other factors could have been involved so we will never know. But the chance boycott of The Sun on Merseyside does at least suggest that Florian Foos of the London School of Economics and Daniel Bischof of the University of Zurich have found some statistically significant evidence that sustained anti-EU bias over time – and the lack of it - can have an effect on attitudes.

Bravo, Byrne

The MacTaggart lecture by Channel 4’s Dorothy Byrne was feisty, funny and intelligent, though inevitably she has been accused of revealing the channel’s bias by calling Donald Trump and Boris Johnston “known liars”.

If by “liar” we mean saying something that is wholly or partially untrue then Trump and Johnson are indeed guilty as charged many times over.

However there is a problem. Lying about affairs you have clearly had is indeed simply lying. But making misleading or wildly optimistic political statements about the future is more rank stupidity and wishful thinking than outright lying about an established fact in the past.

Byrne also called Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn “cowards” for refusing to make themselves available for long set-piece interviews.

They may indeed be cowards but also following their self-interest as they see it. Corbyn is not very good at interviews and gets petulant when challenged, while Johnson has much to hide and is likely to dig huge holes for himself by saying the first thing that comes into his head.

Bryne is right that the current breed of politicians should be called out on their lies, misleading statements and inaccurate facts and put under increasing pressure over their unwillingness to be accountable.

The Channel 4 current affairs executive suggests more instant fact checking at the time in the programme in question.

That’s a start but broadcasters should consider dropping the euphemism “no-one from the Treasury was available” and frequently remind viewers how long it is since the Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition or the Chancellor appeared in a significant interview.

Indeed, as Boris Johnson plans to prorogue Parliament, he even does so with a three minute pool report taking just three questions.

While she called Trump and Johnson “known liars” there was one name missing from Byrne’s MacTaggart – the name of the television executive who sexually assaulted her and any other young women broadcaster he could get his hands on.

As “just about the oldest female TV executive working for a broadcaster”, wasn’t it time to join the MeToo movement and name names?

Byrne admirably appealed to broadcasters to concentrate on making the difficult programmes about the big issues facing society. And then she didn’t have a lot to say about Brexit, the biggest UK issue of the moment, or consider whether broadcasters in general, and the BBC in particular, have done enough to inform their viewers and listeners of what it will all mean leaning back instead on “balance”

Maybe “lying” and inaccurate Prime Ministers and the role of the tabloid press in bring the UK to this Brexit impasse might be worth another look on Channel 4.

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