Why we should ignore the newspapers


11:19 am - October 8th 2013

by Chris Dillow    


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Another day brings another furore about the press, the latest being about The Sun's stigmatizing the mentally ill. This poses the question: why should we fret about newspapers' misconduct?

I'll fess up here. I read the Mail most days. But I also read Holy Moly and Popbitch, and for similar reasons. I don't regard any of them as politically serious.

In fact, there's decent evidence that the political importance of the dead trees was over-rated, even before their circulation began to fall. Here's one US study (pdf) by Jesse Shapiro and colleagues:

We find no evidence that partisan newspapers affect party vote shares, with confidence intervals that rule out even moderate-sized effects. We find no clear evidence that newspapers systematically help or hurt incumbents.

This is consistent with John Curtice's assessment (pdf) of the 1997 election:

Relative to the often highly evocative and strident manner in which the British press often conducts itself, its partisan impact is a small one.

Since then, it's highly likely – given their falling sales – that newspapers' influence has declined further. In the last general election, there was no relationship between the papers' political positions and aggregate votes.

Sure, there is some countervailing evidence. Fox News does seem to have influenced American voters; a neat experiment suggests papers can affect voting; and there's evidence that local papers can encourage turnout and hence improve the vigour of local democracy.

On balance, though, we probably exaggerate the influence of the press. And insofar as this does exist, it's likely that its many infractions against decency are eroding it still further.

Insofar as voters have ideas that we leftists don't like – and in some respects they don't – it is because of cognitive biases which arise without the media's help.

Of course, journalists think that newspapers matter enormously, but then sausage-makers think that sausages matter a lot. We should take neither at their word.

I fear that lefties who fret about the Mail's antics are actually playing into its hands. Like a has-been popstar craving attention, the papers are resorting to ever-more desperate efforts to attract eyeballs. Linkbait is now a business model, and your outrage is their profits.

Let's be clear. The newspaper business is a relatively minor one – the average household spends less each week on papers than it does on fish – which doesn't deserve the attention we give it. 

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Reader comments


Sausages do matter quite a lot, particularly Cumberland, with bacon, eggs and brown sauce on a barm.

The obvious point to make is that neither study looks at the major effect that newspaper and broadcast media have; selecting not the parties, but the policies that parties run on.

All modern parties do sufficient polling that they are not going to campaign on policies that are _unexpectedly_ unpopular. That polling serves to eliminate, or conceal, any direct effect of media.

Imagine the media, unrealistically, had complete mind control of anyone who read it, causing the majority to firmly believe that, say, immigration should be trebled. That wouldn’t show up in ether study, because all major parties with a budget for polling would be campaigning in the spectrum of doubling to quadrupling immigration. Anyone who wanted to _reduce_ immigration would be a controversialist, academic or other non-political type.

Given the amount of bad legislation inflicted upon us after press campaigns I’d say your thesis is a bit wobbly.

The press may have limited influence in some areas but they seem to be behind many of the pub bore gripes that pass for political debate and they have a disproportionate influence within the echo chamber that is Westminster.

If Clement Attlee was still Prime Minister, only paying attention to the Downing Street newswire for the cricket scores, I’d agree with you. Unfortunately his successors, of all parties, don’t take such a relaxed view.

For a serious comment, surely the title ought to be “Why Prime Ministers should ignore newspapers”. I seem to recall Tony Blair lived in abject terror of negative Sun headlines while Brown got the sweats over Daily Mail front pages, both of which was no doubt was responsible for some of the bollocks we had to put up with.

Guardian CiF has this analysis that goes against your argument, Chris: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/07/press-freedom-asylum-seekers-ed-miliband?CMP=fb_gu

7. Mike Killingworth

For once the tabloids and the Coalition are singing from the same hymn sheet.

The latter would be delighted to cut mental health from NHS services, so the more that people with mental health issues can be demonised and those providing services to them vilified the more their agenda is served.

Let’s not forget that we had a great Empire back in the days when no one could afford mental health treatment. There’s got to be a connection, surely?

Ignore the newspapers?

The Financial Times was blowing the whistle on Osborne’s austerity policy from the very start in 2010.

Try Martin Wolf in the Financial Times on 26 September:

Osborne has now been proved wrong on austerity
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c2fc7352-25de-11e3-aee8-00144feab7de.html#axzz2gyF7hrCs

No I reckon that the right to free speech and to publish free speech no matter what the slant is, is probably more important than sausages.

Yup. We really need the freedom of the press so we can see telephoto pics of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts, whenever she is on holiday, and the hacking of voice mailboxes to stay informed on those minor knee injuries of the Duke of Cambridge. But we really can’t have a public debate on the extent of intrusive surveillance of private communications by the security services because that would help terrorists. C’mon.

Indeed, time to stop pretending voters are brainwashed by right wing media. The press aren’t as influential as some people like to imagine.

12. Paul peter Smith

‘ A man who reads nothing at all is better educated than one who reads nothing but newspapers!’
Thomas Jefferson


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