In Brief

Is the UK media’s election coverage fair?

Academic study finds that British press is biased towards Conservatives

Academics have found that the British press overwhelmingly reports negative stories about opposition parties while running more positive coverage about the Conservative government.

After analysing the extent to which different publications ran positive and negative stories about different political parties in the first week of the general election campaign, the researchers at Loughborough University found that the Labour Party was overwhelmingly targeted with negative coverage.

They also discovered that certain outlets reserved positive stories for Boris Johnson’s Conservative party. This was particularly true at the highest circulation newspapers, with journalists at The Sun and the Daily Mail being relied on to write “deferential, pro-government stories,” says The Independent.

“The unweighted results show that only the Conservative Party received more positive than negative coverage across all newspapers,” said the academics. “In contrast, Labour had a substantial deficit of positive to negative news reports in the first formal week of the campaign.”

A separate study in 2017 noted a similar pattern: that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was far more likely to be attacked in election reporting than the then Tory leader, Theresa May.

The reports have raised question marks over whether the UK media’s coverage of the general election is fair and even-handed. The election coverage rules differ between different parts of the media.

Broadcasters are bound by tighter impartiality rules during the official election campaign. Ofcom rules that: “Due weight must be given to the coverage of parties and independent candidates during the election period.” 

It adds that: “In determining the appropriate level of coverage to be given to parties and independent candidates, broadcasters must take into account evidence of past electoral support and/or current support.”

The maths involved in the due weight calculation is not as specific as it could be, leading to regular complaints from smaller parties. Yesterday, the Lib Dems and SNP lost their legal challenge to be included in an ITV head-to-head debate between Johnson and Corbyn.

The BBC follows the Ofcom rules but also adds its own restrictions. For instance, even “programmes which do not usually cover political subjects” must obtain permission from the BBC's “chief adviser” before entering the debate.

Newspapers are free to print what they like. The Electoral Commission's guidance says that “news reports, features and editorials” whether in print or online are “not subject to electoral law” and therefore not required to be impartial.

How much of a difference does any of this make? According to a 2015 survey, 62% of Brits saw television as being the most influential format in informing people about the election, with just 24% saying newspapers influenced them most.

Traditionally, the perception is that newspapers are mostly biased towards the Tories. The London Economic says that the Loughborough University findings merely “confirmed what we all already knew”.

The Conversation adds: “If there is one predictable feature of British electioneering it is that most national newspapers titles will support the Conservative party.”

However, between 1997 and 2005, the majority of press opinion and endorsements supported Tony Blair and the Labour Party.

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