How the media misjudged the 2017 election

Sun front page following the 1992 general election
Sun front page following the 1992 general election

We have written before about the problem the mainstream media has faced in various plebiscites (the last election, Brexit, Trump, etc), but the UK 2017 election results do feel era-defining. It feels like confirmation of the beginning of the end of newspaper influence.

The success of the Brexit campaign, and the national newspapers’ prominent role in driving it, led many commentators – and newspapers themselves – to think “it was [insert name of paper here] wot won it”. In fact, we argued at the time, social media and the legislative restrictions around broadcast media were equally important.

The results from last Thursday, and the lead Labour now has in the polls, more resemble the Trump election than the Brexit campaign. Like Trump, Corbyn was in the ascendancy despite universal hostility in the mainstream press (even the Mirror was negative about him, right up till May announced the snap election). Corbyn’s success came from bypassing the hostile press using both  social media and broadcast’s formats to his advantage. Both media allowed him to talk direct to the electorate. He also appeared on the front cover of pretty much every magazine aimed at the largely disengaged youth demographic – to dramatic effect. With all these measures, the 18-24 age group vote rose from 43% in 2015 to an estimated 72% .

Where the newspapers have been effective is in undermining Corbyn within the print-obsessed Westminster bubble. Over the two years since he became Labour leader, the unrelenting negative press has fuelled discontent in the PLP. The negativity within the PLP has fed back into negative stories about the Corbyn camp – and so on, until the polls were so positive that Theresa May felt confident in calling the election. Once the PLP was forced into a corner – and that small cadre of left-leaning papers had to finally stop carping – the tables turned.

In fact, they all missed the growth of positive Corbyn feedback on social media. While many decry Momentum’s “bullying tactics”, they have undoubtedly tapped into a wellspring of disillusionment. This voice – and the power of alternative media – was simply not understood by the press. Social media is the dominant source of news for millennials and Gen-Xs, who look at a huge range of outlets as a result – and who will become an ever-increasing part of the electorate.

It is a wake-up call for the press and for the Westminster bubble. Matthew d’Ancona today wrote that he had “assumed” that Corbyn was going to be a disaster. Columns founded on assumption, though, should not be mistaken for reporting. As my colleague Matt said today: “That’s not journalism. Get out and talk to people. Find out what they are really thinking. Then report your findings.” Lobby journalists are frequently as out-of-touch as the politicians they characterise as remote.

Let’s all agree that political journalism is not the same as pamphleteering. It is easy to raise a rabble, but much more difficult to actually establish the facts and report them honestly. Journalists need to be true to their findings, and editors need to start serving their public rather than leading them down a pre-determined path.

Otherwise, as trust erodes, the influence of the printed media and their digital outposts will continue to fall. And with it, the entire business model.


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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work in the TMT (technology, media, and telecoms) space, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.