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By Fergus Lynch, Senior Account Director

How the media landscape is shifting before a likely Labour victory in the General Election

“The media does not have this kind of power” said humble newspaper proprietor Rupert Murdoch after The Sun’s famous front page took credit for John Major’s unlikely win in the 1992 General Election. The paper had backed the struggling Tory PM against Labour’s Neil Kinnock, despite polls suggesting it would end in a hung parliament or a tight Labour win, and Major just about managed to record the Tories’ fourth consecutive victory.

However modest he may claim their impact to be, Rupert likes his papers to be on the winning team. “The Sun backs Blair” front page in 1997 was a seismic moment. Britain’s biggest newspaper switched from the Conservatives to get behind New Labour, just before the party secured what a future Prime Minister might refer to as a stonking majority (though the Australian tycoon was clearly hedging his bets, as The Times stuck with John Major).

Since Blair stepped down, the Labour party’s (mis)fortunes with the electorate have reflected its success in persuading the national media to back its cause. Even stalwart supporter The Guardian abandoned it in 2010 to jump on the Nick Clegg bandwagon. Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn were all given short shrift by the Fleet Street elite, as the Conservatives just about won four consecutive elections.

Based on current polling, it seems almost certain that Rishi Sunak will shortly return to his natural habitat: the ranks of gilet-clad finance bros talking about crypto and guzzling coke (diet, of course). But the likelihood of a Labour victory leaves our national media in a tricky position, particularly for those who pride themselves on being on the winning team.

It doesn’t require a piercing insight to divine which way The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Daily Express might lean, and which party The Guardian and Daily Mirror will support. But Murdoch’s stable of The Sun and The Times, and their Sunday sister papers, appear to be taking a slightly more circumspect approach.

The Sun’s editorial leader, published the day after Sunak’s announcement of a General Election, was hardly a ringing endorsement of the Prime Minister. And while it was critical of Keir Starmer’s Labour party for being “bereft of insight and ideas”, there was little sign of the venom it used to unleash upon the hapless Corbyn and Miliband.

It started to show signs of running up the red flag earlier in the year, when it enthusiastically praised Rachel Reeves’s pledge to lower taxes on working people and lapping up her comments comparing herself to Thatcher. A couple of weeks ago it ran a glowing piece on Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting, telling its readers he was a cancer survivor who hates woke nonsense and is on a mission to save the NHS.

This doesn’t mean that The Sun will give Keir Starmer an easy ride, but it would appear to be softening its stance towards Labour, and giving itself the latitude to back the party (albeit, perhaps reluctantly) towards the end of the campaign.

The Times has been similarly non-committal in its support for the Prime Minister. It was also critical of Starmer for not providing sufficient clarity on his plans for Britain, but it featured a broadly positive write-ups for Reeves’s plans for workers’ rights, and a cautiously optimistic editorial after Labour’s success in the local elections. Could The Times too switch its support to Labour, particularly if it becomes clear closer to polling day that a landslide is inevitable?

Perhaps the more important question is, do newspaper endorsements matter in 2024 Newspaper circulation figures, already in decline, collapsed during the pandemic and have not fully recovered. Most of us get our news from a combination of Russian bots on Twitter and AI-generated avatars on TikTok, not the printed pages of a newspaper.

It’s notoriously difficult for academics to establish the impact of the media on how people vote. However, research from Aaron Reeves, professor of sociology at the University of Oxford, found that The Sun’s switch to backing the Conservatives in 2010 may have generated 550,000 votes for the party.

Given the scale of the swing Starmer needs to achieve to win a majority (12.5% - bigger than Blair in 1997), he’ll need every vote he can get. And if the endorsement of a major tabloid delivers a couple of hundred thousand votes and gets Sir Keir over the line, it might just be The Sun wot won it for him.

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