Friday, May 08, 2015

Does David Cameron owe his 2015 General Election win to Rupert Murdoch and the Sun newspaper?

  • Ed Miliband told Russell Brand that Murdoch is much less powerful than he used to be
  • The Sun's daily circulation is down 34% since the 2010 election
  • National newspaper sales are down more than 3-million in the past five years
  • Newspaper readership is down even more
  • Two-thirds of voters do not read a national newspaper
  • Less than 10% of voters read the Sun
  • The Sun probably directly influences fewer than 1.2% of voters
The Sun did not win the election for David Cameron.  Well, at least, not directly.

In his interview with Russell Brand, Ed Miliband claimed that Rupert Murdoch's power has diminished and many social media commentators went on to say that the then Labour leader was set to become the first prime minister who owed nothing to the media mogul.

It was a point that Brand pushed him on, but Miliband was adamant, saying that Murdoch is 'much less powerful than he used to be.'

So, given that he stood up to Murdoch's papers, and they attacked him mercilessly, was Miliband right about Murdoch's power?

On the face of it, he's obviously right.  National newspaper circulations have plummeted by almost a third since the last general election in 2010,  The Sun, Britain's biggest selling newspaper has seen its sale fall by 34% from just over 3-million to a little under 2-million.  The Mail has lost 20% (down to 1.7-million), and the Mirror is down 24% to just 922,235.

You might think this has something to do with the hacking scandal and lack of trust people now have in newspapers, but the biggest fallers over the past five years have not been the tabloids, but the so-called quality papers.  The Guardian, for example, has lost almost 40% of its sale since the last election with the number purchased each day falling to just 185,000.  The Independent has suffered even more, losing 67% of its daily sale and now struggling to sell more than 61,000 each day.

In total, national newspapers sales are down more than 3-million a day since the 2010 election, falling from about 9.8-million per day to about 6.8-million.

Of course, sales is only part of the story.  Newspapers like to talk about readership because each paper sold tends to be read by more than one person.  Coming up with a readership figure is not an exact science, relying as it does on surveys. So, at the last election the readership figure looked as if it was about 2.5 times the circulation.   However, readership has been falling even faster than circulation - may be even twice as fast.

So what percentage of the voting public was reading which newspaper at the last election?  The following charts are based on the number of  readers for each paper who voted and the fact that there were about 30-million voters at each election.

 And what does that chart look like now?

When it comes to voting influence, we need to consider the number of newspaper readers who voted. In 2010, according to an Ipsos Mori poll, about 64% of newspaper readers voted.  That being the case, in 2010, about 53% of the voters were reading a newspaper.  In yesterday's vote, the number had fallen to 33%.  It is obvious that the direct influence of newspapers is falling rapidly and now two-thirds of people who vote are not even looking at a national paper.

But, of course, it is Rupert Murdoch who is seen as the devil incarnate by most critics of the press - and it was Murdoch who so concerned Brand. So what percentage of voters read his papers: the Sun and the Times?  And is that falling?

According to that Ipsos Mori poll, only about 57% of the Sun's readers voted at the last election, suggesting that the Sun was talking to about 4.3-million voters at the time of the 2010 election, about 14% of those who voted.  This week, that figure had dropped to  2.4-million voters, or about 8% of all voters.

But, the same poll suggests that the Sun has not been able to get more than 45% of its voting readers to vote Conservative in any of the past five elections.

Even when the Sun threw its weight behind Labour, about 30% of its readers still voted Tory, suggesting that it influenced about 15% of its voting readers.  At today's levels, that would be about 365,000 voters, which is about 1.2% of the turnout.

If those voters are evenly spread around the country, it is difficult to see how anybody could claim that the Sun had much of a direct influence on this week's result, let alone that it was the Sun wot won it.  However, it is unlikely that they are evenly spread.

We know for example, that few copies are sold in Liverpool and it may just be a coincidence, but the city was one of the areas which bucked the election trend with incumbent Labour candidates increasing their majorities.

Despite this, my own view is that Miliband is correct in his belief that Murdoch's power is much diminished and, as sales continue to fall at something like 10% a year, that direct power will go with it.  By the time of the next election, sales of the Sun would be down to not much over 1-million if the fall continued at the same rate as the past 12 months.  That would leave it influencing not much more than 90,000 voters by 2020.

Indeed, Labour's former spin-doctor-in-chief, Alistair Campbell is already pretty dismissive of newspaper influence, describing the tabloids' coverage of the election as 'beyond parody,' and saying:  'the media is certainly not trusted like it was.'  According to an article in the Guardian, Mr Campbell said:
“My complaint about newspapers has never been that they are biased, I was a very biased journalist on the Daily Mirror. My complaint has often been to the broadcasters to allow that bias to impact on them.” 
And, that, I believe, is the crux of the matter. The tabloids in themselves - and Rupert Murdoch, for that matter - don't have anything like the influence they once had, but those around them, even those who claim to despise them, give them power by constantly talking about them.  And it is not just the broadcasters and social media, politicians are just as bad.  It's probably true that there is no such thing as bad news for the newspapers when it comes to talking about their influence.

Oddly, Mr Campbell seems to recognise this phenomenon when he says that critical media coverage of Ed Milliband's interview with Russell Brand, simply drove people to watch the interview on YouTube.
“Something like that Russell Brand interview, the mainstream so-called media gave it massive hype, and the fact it was mostly negative hype didn’t matter because people who then decided to watch it made the choice to do that."
And yet he, along with many, many others, continues to prop up an ailing press by constantly discussing it and giving it a power it doesn't have in itself.  Perception is reality.

Some things to remember:
  • This is nothing more than a back-of-a-fag-packet calculation.  I don't have the time - and may be the brains - to complete a more detailed analysis.
  • I looked at 10 daily titles, but excluded the i, the Metro, anything in Scotland, and the Standard - this was because I didn't have enough data at my fingertips and, anyway, I don't consider them national.
  • I made an assumption on readership.  I multiplied the average daily sale of each newspaper by 2.5 to give me the 2010 readership, and by 2.3 to give me the 2015 figure.  This was because of this article.  I think, if anything, I have understated the fall in readership.
  • I calculated the number of voters from each newspaper by multiplying the number of readers by the percentage given in the Ipsos Mori poll.
  • I have assumed a turnout of 30-million.
  • I got the latest circulation figures from Press Gazette
  • I got the 2010 circulation figures from Wikipedia even though I constantly warn my students that this is not a reliable source!
  • I know News International, or NI, is now called News UK, but I wanted to avoid confusing those readers who don't follow the media business closely.
  • The FT's voting turn out is based on 2005 figures because the data sample for 2010 was too small.
Murdoch picture: By Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia (Rupert Murdoch) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons