For the last month we have been working with Avaaz to track the election coverage of the right wing press: the Times, Telegraph, Sun and Mail. The picture that emerges, particularly with the Sun and the Mail, is essentially a media machine entirely in lock step with Conservative HQ. Their attacks are the same, their language is the same, their soundbites, their heroes, their villains, the lot. When one changes tactics, so does the other. It gives an entirely warped view of the real choices on offer to voters.
I should say, firstly, how surprisingly good the Times has been. A Murdoch paper, and yet seemingly the most balanced and fair of the four - it has published some great pieces from unexpected angles. Even the Mail, in the shape of Peter Hitchens - much maligned on the left - has delivered some honest, sharp and refreshing perspectives. As for the general quality of the four papers, however, Hitchens probably said it best in his Sunday column. Why have the press made so little of Tebbit's remarks that in Scotland Tory voters should vote Labour? Because of the:
"squeaking multitudes of political journalists who... have settled on a line about what this election is about and are reading from a script given to them by the government spin doctors on whom they depend so much."
April 6th to April 12th, the early campaign, was really a continuation of the last five years: relentless personal attacks on Ed Miliband, a general silence on the legislative sins of the Coalition, and endless talk about the economic wonders the Conservative Chancellor is alleged to have achieved. Personal insults against Miliband for this period average over 5 a day across the papers. Attacks on his political character averaged just over 3 a day. The high point came on the 12th, when the papers produced 10 personal insults against the Labour leader: backstabber, geek, gauche, clumsy, nerd, and so on.
At this stage, the key points that came up time and again were: the party with the most seats should have the right to form the government (ahistorical, unconstitutional, and baseless), and that Labour should rule out any sort of deal with the SNP (why they should have to do this is never really made clear). Articles attacking Labour were running at around 45 per week, while attacks on the SNP were only at around 6 a week. The most common soundbites were that a Labour win would be an economic "catastrophe"/"disaster", that Miliband betrayed his brother David, that a Labour win would cause 'wealth creators' to flee the country, and that Labour had an "anti-business" agenda.
On policy, most common by far was praise for the Conservatives on the economy followed by praise for their NHS policies and thirdly their tax cuts. Attacks on Labour were dominated by attacks on tax rises, followed by criticism of their stance on an EU referendum, and thirdly knocking their economic credentials and record.
Then something changed. The negative campaign wasn't working. Labour's polling was holding well and time was running short. Miliband's personal ratings had actually improved, off the back of his appearances in the Paxman interview and the debates. And so began the 'SNP phase' of the campaign.
From around April 12th onwards, the new villain was Nicola Sturgeon, the "poisoned dwarf" as the Sun called her, the "most dangerous woman in Britain". The message runs essentially as follows: Sturgeon will dominate a weak Miliband in a coalition, the SNP will destroy the country. It's "the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication", ran the Mail's front page. This strategy doesn't target anyone except UKIP voters and the odd swing voter; unless you vote Tory the country will be destroyed. The message is entirely negative, just as the first part of the campaign was - smearing Miliband.
In this SNP phase, the decline in attacks on Miliband have been remarkable. Personal insults have fallen from over 5 a day to just under one a day since April 12th. Attacks on his political character have fallen from over 3 a day to around 0.5 a day. These are enormous shifts.
In the same period, attacks on the SNP rose from around 1 a day to over 6 a day.
Claims that SNP would "hold the country to ransom" or that Labour would be "in the SNP's pocket" rose in the same period from around 5 a day across the papers, to 9 a day across the 'SNP phase' of the campaign, from April 12th onwards. The (false) implication that the party that wins most seats should be allowed to form the government rose from 2 occurrences in week 1, to 4 in week 2, and to 11 in week 3.
This has been the extent of the campaign, and it has been hammered home day after day. It is strictly fear and negativity except for one area - the economy, for which Osborne is praised day after day. Unusually for the right wing press immigration was scarcely discussed - in all likelihood because they perceive the issue as driving Tory voters towards UKIP, yet it remains a dominant issue for voters when polled, and it was the scene of one of Cameron's key (and failed) pledges in 2010: to reduce immigration to under 100,000.
Another key concern for the voters is the NHS, yet virtually the only coverage you'll see on it concerns funding: who will and won't provide the '£8bn' that the NHS 'needs' (this number is a fantasy). The most significant Act of the Coalition, the Health and Social Care Act, has warranted only 8 mentions across all four papers since April 6th, an average of twice per paper. Praise for the Conservatives on the NHS has appeared 21 times by way of comparison. Despite the press being incensed at the disproportionate wins likely for the SNP compared to UKIP, with UKIP being likely to gain three times as many votes, there has been only one mention of electoral reform. As for taxes, the press are unremittingly hostile to tax rises and overwhelmingly in favour of tax cuts - so much for "balancing the books".
The level of coordination between the Conservatives and the right wing press is impressive. The exact same words and phrases appear frequently from both camps. Former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks' text message to David Cameron has never been more apt: "We're all in this together". We also learn from the Independent that in February Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not attacking Miliband aggressively enough, and that the future of News Corp was on the line. This demonstrates not only the nonsense of claims that proprietors never get involved in editorial, but also the real reason for Murdoch's press empire - to protect his much more lucrative operations with the political leverage it grants him.
So the press campaign overall has been largely indistinguishable from the Conservative HQ campaign. The first phase was entirely about smearing Miliband and talking endlessly about the Conservatives' economic achievements. The second phase has been talking of the sheer terror of the devil Sturgeon "destroying the country", while still talking endlessly about the Conservatives' economic achievements. Moving forward, the soundbite picking up pace is that the SNP-Lab government would be "illegitimate". And this is the crucial part of the media's game.
Early in April Adam Ramsay wrote that the press would try their own "coup" in the event of a Lab-SNP government, that they would insist Cameron forms the government because he "has most seats" and is "most popular". These have been key messages in the press. Last week I wrote about the Conservatives apparent attempt to drag the Queen into supporting such a 'coup' - and they were rebuffed publicly, though only the Times mentioned this fascinating story. Read the comments from John Major, Nick Clegg and Theresa May about a Lab-SNP government being "illegitimate" or "a coup" and you should be in no doubt as to the intentions of Conservative HQ and the press: if their man cannot command a majority and Miliband can, they will try to circumvent the constitution to retain power. This really would be a "coup" and it is unfolding before our eyes.
If the polls hold steady the real battle begins not on May 7th but May 8th. The right are looking likely to attempt to keep Cameron in power despite it being Miliband with the ability to get a Queen's speech passed. As to whether the SNP could really "hold the country to ransom", read Adam Ramsay's article on the subject. It's scaremongering. But that is the battleground and voters will have to make their own mind up come May 7th.
...and be prepared to defend the constitution on the 8th.
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