What a difference a year makes. There was a feeling after the referendum vote last year, not without good reason, that certain sections of the press had helped swing the vote in favour of the Leave group. The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express devoted a sizeable chunk of coverage in the months leading up to the vote to stories blaming the EU for everything from voodoo murders to the banning of balloons at children’s parties. The stories were mostly rubbish but they seemed to have the desired effect.
The same papers (The Sun and the Daily Mail, mainly) were up to their usual tricks trying to influence the outcome of this year’s General Election. Both threw everything including the kitchen sink at Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. On election day, The Sun put Corbyn inside a dustbin on its front page alongside captions such as ‘terrorists’ friend’ and ‘destroyer of jobs’, while the Mail at one point devoted around a fifth of its total output to telling readers what a disaster and a danger the Labour leader is.
Only this time, the mud-slinging didn’t have the desired effect. It’s led many commentators to proclaim that the tabloids have had their day in terms of being able to sway the electorate at voting time.
It’s a bit of a comedown for The Sun in particular. The paper has not been shy of boasting in the past that it has the power to determine election outcomes in this country. The Mail, on the other hand, has always supported the Conservative Party so its influence has fluctuated over the years.
The truth is that the tabloid papers have been declining in influence for a number of years. The EU referendum represented a bit of an anomaly to the trend, mainly because it was the older groups of people who came out in larger numbers to vote in that election. It’s primarily the older generations that buy and read the mainstream papers. Not entirely, but what’s written in the pages of The Sun and the rest is not going to register with many people under 40.
We’ve reached the age of internet dominance in terms of news sources. Yahoo and Google are now the top two news websites. The likes of The Sun and the Mail are trying to keep up and both have a strong online presence, but neither have the same popular cultural clout as they did 15-20 years ago.
The tabloids have been declining in influence for a while and their sales are down. Add to that the current ongoing fixation with the phenomenon of ‘fake news’. The discourse around this hasn’t been especially linked to the tabloids but it has led to heightened levels of mistrust and scepticism around mainstream news. It’s made people think just a little bit more about where ‘news’ is coming from and how it is generated. Not ideal for the tabloids who would undoubtedly prefer it if people carried on unthinkingly digesting whatever they churn out.
More pertinent to this particular election was the increase in turn-out among younger voters. It’s already been mentioned that younger people are less influenced by the mainstream press. They’re probably also more cynical regarding fake news output.
Regarding The Sun and the Daily Mail in particular, it’s difficult to imagine anyone under the age of 30 treating these papers with anything other than indifference or disdain. Both papers have certainly never sought to attract young people. In fact, they’re usually portrayed as one of the groups responsible for social problems – either out committing crimes or lazily sponging off the state and expecting everything to be given to them on a plate.
Young people have no cultural attachment to the tabloids and no experience of having ever treated them as a serious news medium. The papers will have entered their consciousness already associated with phone-hacking scandals, Hillsborough lies, racism, homophobia and all the rest. The staple tabloid tactics of repeatedly attacking, ridiculing and slinging mud at anyone they don’t like will be seen for exactly what it is by many of today’s youths who are all too aware of bullying issues. It’s well known that Jeremy Corbyn enjoys support among younger voters as it is. The vicious coverage he received at the hands of the tabloids may well have driven a fair few more of them towards voting Labour last Thursday.
So the prospects are that as long as the youth vote remains high, the tabloids are in trouble when it comes to telling us how to vote. Even if it doesn’t, their relevance will continue to diminish. The Sun will probably never again be able to tell us it was them ‘wot won it’. Hopefully this election will force the worst tabloid offenders to rethink the appalling way they cover politics in this country.
But the game is far from over. The Mail Online website remains in the top 10 most viewed news websites globally. The Sun still shifts 1.6 million units daily and is only a small part of owner Rupert Murdoch’s News International empire.
Both have taken a blow and are no doubt smarting from failing to get the outcome they wanted from last week’s election, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll fade away and accept defeat. Until rules are put in place to ensure that the printed press operates with at least some level of political impartiality and objectivity, there will always be a danger of large news providers sticking their partisan oar in at election time and trying to get the result they want – if not The Sun and the Daily Mail, then whoever replaces them as influential news sources for future generations.
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