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Critical review newspapers impact on citizens political attitudes and behaviour

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  • 1. A Report Newspapers’ Impact on Citizens’ Political Attitudes and Voting Behaviour Critical Review of 1997 Elections* Anurag Gangal Professor and Head of Department, Political Science and Director, Gandhian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Jammu, Jammu, Jammu and Kashmir, India. The Sun had David William Donald Cameron’s photo on its front cover with the mainheading “Our Only Hope: In Cameron We Trust” on the Election Day in 2010. Lo and whathappened then! Tories won elections 2010 and formed the coalition Government with LiberalDemocrats.1 The Sun is traditionally regarded as a newspaper supporting the Conservatives mostly butfor a few exceptions of switching to Labour Party when Tony Blair was the Prime Minister andalso in 1997 when the then Tory Prime Minister John Major announced general elections on 17March 1997.2 Tories generally have almost all the newspapers’ press advantage in Britain but forthe election campaign days of 1997.3 Even the then media magnet, Rupert Murdoch, alsosupported Labour Party. One major reason for this massive support to the Labour was Eurosceptic attitude of the Press. The Sun was highly critical of the Labour Party in 1992.4 It lost elections. This newspapersupported Labour in 1997. The Labour Party then won elections and formed government. Thisshows an apparent impact of partisan press upon political attitudes and behaviour of voters inelections. Is it always true? Partially true? Or sometimes true? The working paper under review entitled “Was it the Sun wot won it again? TheInfluence of Newspapers in the 1997 Election Campaign” examines only such questions aboutnewspapers’ influence in this context. Is it indeed The Sun wot won elections in Britain? In otherwords, is it really the Press or the ‘fourth estate’ which make political parties win or lose*Critical review of Curtice, J., “Was it the Sun wot won it again? The Influence of Newspapers in the 1997 ElectionCampaign”, Working Paper, Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends, Working Paper Number 75,Oxford: Department of Sociology, September 1999, pages – i-ii + 1-31.1 http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/gallery/2010/may/06/general-election-2010-newspapers-front-pages2 Curtice, J., “Was it the Sun wot won it again? The Influence of Newspapers in the 1997 Election Campaign”,Working Paper, Centre for Research into Elections and Social Trends, Number 75, Oxford: Department ofSociology, September 1999, pp. 1-2.3 Ibid. p.2.4 Ibid. pp. 2-4. Newspapers Influence on Voting Behaviour: A Report 1
  • 2. elections? This question and other related aspects are examined in great data oriented detailsmainly by J. Curtice – author of the working paper under review. Other authors have also studiedand conducted election studies but not to the extent and manner as J. Curtice has done.5 The mostinteresting part of this working paper under review is its utmost detailed and methodical study ofnewspaper readers of major and top newspapers of Britain, their loyalty levels and the changingapproach of various newspapers during 1997 elections. This working paper – on the basis of relevant data from “The 1997 British ElectionCampaign Study” – presents and objectively analyses the following main aspects of 1997parliamentary general elections vis-a-vis the influence of newspapers and theirdiversified/shifting coverage on the political behaviour and attitudes of voters in elections: 1. Press coverage of elections 2. Shifting loyalties of the newspapers 3. Types of readers of major national newspapers and their levels of loyalty to concerned newspaper 4. How readers and newspapers loyalty is likely to affect the election campaign and election results 5. Why loyalties change especially at the level of newspapers 6. What is the extent of newspapers influence on the voting choice of voters and also upon the election results These six aspects are the main concerns of the working paper under review. Certain otherrelated matters such as a few pinching headlines or ‘one-liners’ in newspapers are also presentedfor creating an effective impact on readers. All above mentioned perspectives are explained with reference to data and examplesavailable to author. Yet, every data oriented study concerning vast masses and citizens of acountry like Britain cannot be fully representative. It has to be mostly selective. As such any ofthe conclusions and results of the study in the working paper under review cannot be generalised5 Ibid. P. 4-6. In this context, these references are mentioned in the relevant working paper: Dunleavy, P. andHusbands, C. Democracy at the Crossroads. London: Allen and Unwin, 1985. Newton, K. ‘Do People BelieveEverything They Read in the Papers? Newspapers and Voters in the 1983 and 1987 Elections’, in Crewe, I., Norris,P., Denver, D. and Broughton, D., eds., British Elections and Parties Handbook 1991. Hemel Hempstead: HarvesterWheatsheaf, 1991. Newspapers Influence on Voting Behaviour: A Report 2
  • 3. though they can be understood for purposes of causal perception of the theme of the workingpaper. Otherwise, it is a very useful working paper for understanding the electoral and politicalnuances of the British newspapers, their readers, political leaders and voting behaviour andattitudes of voters in a particular context of the 1997 election when the Labour Party had won.This working paper also very succinctly points out how The Sun appears to be behind the victoryof the Conservatives and Labour Party at different times in 1992 and 1997 respectively. Allowme to quote a few very significant lines from this working paper. “...the unprecedented if notsurprising level of support for Labour amongst the national press was followed by the party’smost successful election result ever, at least in terms of seats. For those commentators whobelieved that the Tories traditional advantage in terms of press partisanship provided them withan unfair advantage at election time (see, for example, Linton 1995) the outcome of the 1997appears to be a clear vindication of their claims. Another simple case, it seems, of ‘It was the Sunwot won it’!6 The newspapers do make an impact on the political behaviour and attitudes of the votersin elections in Britain. This impact can differ from year to year and moment to moment. Reasonsbehind this impact can be different ranging from issue to issue, individual to individual andchoice of a leader to leader. Yet, any election study can still not be generalised and applied toevery individual and voter because every citizen is different and acts and thinks quiteunpredictably and uniquely from time to time. In a democracy, choices can be put forth but noone can forcefully influence the working of the mind and understanding of an individual voter.This beauty of diversity and unity of interest among individuals also emerges in this workingpaper though in a latent way for it not written very clearly ant where. Despite such aspects,Curtice is largely successful in accomplishing the aims of his study. Author of this workingpaper is indeed a master of his field of the election studies.6 Curtice, J., Ibid. p. 3. Newspapers Influence on Voting Behaviour: A Report 3