Stephen Glover on the Press

How the pollsters and the papers came to the wrong conclusions
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The Independent Online

In the end, the Tories did not get much more support from the press then they had in 2001. Only the Daily Express, which backed New Labour four years ago, changed sides. The Times, Guardian, Sun, Daily Mirror, and Financial Times supported Labour. The Independent seemed to endorse the Lib Dems. The Daily Telegraph went for the Tories, though not with huge enthusiasm or conviction. The Daily Mail was passionately behind Michael Howard, but even it appeared to have doubts at the 11th hour. Alone on election day, its front page was not about politics. There was no final exhortation to readers to go out and give Tony Blair a bloody nose.

In the end, the Tories did not get much more support from the press then they had in 2001. Only the Daily Express, which backed New Labour four years ago, changed sides. The Times, Guardian, Sun, Daily Mirror, and Financial Times supported Labour. The Independent seemed to endorse the Lib Dems. The Daily Telegraph went for the Tories, though not with huge enthusiasm or conviction. The Daily Mail was passionately behind Michael Howard, but even it appeared to have doubts at the 11th hour. Alone on election day, its front page was not about politics. There was no final exhortation to readers to go out and give Tony Blair a bloody nose.

And yet, to a large extent, that is what voters did. Though they may not admit it now, most newspapers assumed that Labour was heading, if not for a third landslide, at any rate for a three-figure majority. And the reason they thought this was that the opinion polls seemed to indicate such an outcome. Pollsters never like to admit error, and they have already been informing our somewhat credulous media that they got it right. Up to a point. Admittedly, there were few dreadfully awry last-minute polls such as that from Populus in The Times three days before the election, which put Labour on 42 per cent and the Conservatives on 29 per cent. Most eve-of-election polls forecast the percentage of the vote that parties would receive quite accurately, though slightly overstating Labour's actual position, and understating the Tories'. But it was the conclusions they drew - ignoring the peculiarities of marginal constituencies - that were so mistaken.

Let me give three examples from newspapers on election day. The Times informed us in its splash that "Tony Blair is heading for a three-figure majority but potentially the lowest share of the popular vote for any governing party in modern times, a Populus poll suggests today". The second half of this statement was right, the first part wrong. On the same day, the Guardian's splash extrapolated from its own poll to suggest that "Labour is heading for a historic third-term victory with a possible three-figure majority, according to the results of the Guardian/ICM eve-of-election survey". The Daily Telegraph fell into a similar trap. The headline on the analysis by its psephologist Anthony King was: "Tories face catastrophe as poll gives 110 majority to Labour". Mr King has a habit of being gloomy whenever asked to assess Tory fortunes. In the early hours of Friday morning, on BBC1, he was still suggesting that Labour's overall majority would be about 80, when it was pretty clear that it would be very near to the BBC's own (very accurate) exit-poll figure of 66.

So it is simply not true that the polls "got it right". The share of vote predicted for the parties may have been reasonably accurate, but the conclusions drawn were not. Newspapers and pollsters misinterpreted their own figures. This explains the media's general assumption in the final week of the campaign that the Tories had a one-way ticket to oblivion. Even the Mail had an attack of nerves. As for The Sun, it went mad in a front- page piece, portraying Tony Blair as a sexual athlete and superman. The paper had no idea that its hero was about to have his majority slashed by 100 seats. Its front-page headline, written after the exit polls on Thursday evening, was "A kick in the Ballots". A rather unfriendly leader warned Mr Blair that "there can be no resting on the laurels of three wins in a row", and spoke of "the revitalised Tories". In another piece, Trevor Kavanagh, The Sun's political editor, praised Mr Howard. At the first sign that the New Labour project might be cracking up, The Sun's immediate thought was to give Mr Blair a well-aimed kick, and to rebuild its bridges with the Tories.

I agree that Mr Howard's unnecessary and unwise resignation throws everything into temporary confusion. Who knows who the Conservatives may now dig up? But on the assumption that they find someone presentable and plausible who can build on the Tory revival, we can be reasonably certain that this is the last time The Sun will support New Labour. I suspect that when the figures are known, the paper will be shocked to learn how many of its readers voted Conservative. If the French approve the European Constitution at the end of the month, as seems increasingly likely, there will be a referendum in this country next year, when The Sun will find itself at loggerheads with Tony Blair, or whoever is the Labour leader then. Whatever the outcome of that inevitably bitter struggle, The Sun may no longer feel that it can rally to the side of a party with which it disagrees so profoundly on such a divisive issue.

Though Mr Howard's foolish act of hara-kiri will probably lead to the Tories being characterised in the short term as irredeemably hopeless, my bet is that what used to be called the Tory press will quite soon again become a political force to be reckoned with. The Daily Express has already lined up with the Mail and Telegraph. Of course, we must not be too deterministic. If Gordon Brown were able to avoid the tax increases that all economists predict, and to revive a flagging economy, he might retain the support of The Sun, and even earn the respect of the Mail. But we would be unwise to count on such miracles. Although, during its recent brief infatuation with Mr Blair, The Sun dismissively referred to the "Tory press", it won't be very long before it bolsters the ranks of the club that was once loathed and feared by the Labour Party in equal measure.

Can Trinity Mirror hold on to its nationals?

A good indication of the deteriorating economy and falling consumer confidence comes from Trinity Mirror. Advertising income at its three national titles, including the Daily Mirror, declined by 7 per cent in March and April, though it was flat at its regional titles. This may be a flash in the pan, but even a mild recession in display advertising would not be good news for Trinity Mirror, not to mention other publishers. Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror, has taken out many costs, at which she would appear to be very adept, but I don't suppose there are many more to be had. Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror's circulation has declined by nearly 10 per cent over the past 12 months. It is difficult to see Trinity hanging on to its national titles with their falling sales for very long. But who might buy them?

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