The mixed messages of the AVs and AV nots

Surprising contradictions and odd alliances – it's not just politicians hoping to influence our votes at the referendum. What role is the press playing?

It is but one of the many anomalies surrounding the referendum on the electoral system that the Yes campaign's television advertising features a fat-cat MP at a restaurant table, confronted by constituents with loudhailers asking him: "Was it entirely fair that us taxpayers paid for your ludicrous expenses?"

Because the newspaper that exposed the abuse of public funds by parliamentarians, The Daily Telegraph, came out emphatically in favour of the No campaign in a leader article published on 15 April. "The existing system has a happy tendency to produce governments that reflect the mood of the nation, with sufficient majorities to meet their manifesto commitments," it said.

The Telegraph went on to explain that it was in favour of reforming the current arrangements but that the Alternative Vote (AV) was not the answer. "As the newspaper that exposed the MPs' expenses scandal, we know that politics needs to change – but the alternative to AV is not to keep things as they are." The piece was headed: "AV will not fix the system – indeed, in many ways, it will make things worse."

Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a referendum that sees Old Etonian David Cameron standing shoulder to shoulder on the No platform with ex-Communist and Labour hard man John Reid. The London Evening Standard noted the "remarkable feature" of cross-party alliances in this debate as it also came out emphatically in favour of rejecting AV. "This paper urges Londoners to get out and vote," it said in a leader. "And we urge them to vote 'no' to this flawed, unwanted, unnecessary piece of tinkering with our constitution."

A newspaper's ownership is not necessarily a clue to its position on AV. The Evening Standard is part of the same publishing stable as The Independent, which on 30 March, gave over its front page to a strident leader in favour of the Yes campaign. "The doors to political reform have been prised open by the 2010 election result, which delivered a hung parliament and the agreement to stage this referendum," it said. "Now is the time for the British people to fling those doors to a better politics wide open by rejecting apathy and voting Yes to AV."

The Guardian takes a similar view. In a leading article on 19 April it attacked the "unremitting negativity" of the No campaign while expressing regret that AV did not "lend itself to inspirational oratory". But such reform was "a first step in restoring the severed link between the governing and the governed", The Guardian said, as it criticised the rhetoric of Cameron and Reid. "If the shop stewards of the old politics are allowed to prevent it now, they will dismiss all potential future reforms as obsessions of the chattering class. Instead of rationalising our political rules, we will be told to stop moaning and get used to them, because – after all – they're British." But The Independent and The Guardian occupy a minority position within the British press. Hugh Whittow of the Daily Express is another national editor who has positioned his title firmly in opposition to change to the existing electoral system. "Our readers have been left in no doubt about what the Daily Express feels about AV... It is no, no, no!" he says.

How much does influence does the national press have on such a vote? Stephen Fleming, editor of Editorial Intelligence, which analyses the comment and leader articles of the big publications, says newspapers are struggling to get the public excited over the referendum. "My wife is a solicitor, an intelligent woman and a newspaper reader, and she said to me this morning ,'What's AV?'. She would have had to have dropped a £50 note in the polling booth to be bothered to go in there and vote." He says issues such as the royal wedding, mission creep in Libya and the gagging orders of celebrities, were the matters exercising the thoughts of the comment writers. Among the few to have devoted their columns to AV is Karren Brady in The Sun, who reflected that many of her friends thought AV stood for "Aston Villa". Urging her readers to stick with the first past the post system, the West Ham United vice-chairman said: "In the world of sport where I work there are no prizes for runners-up."

Her fellow columnist Ann Widdecombe, writing in the Daily Express, warned of the "utter scandal" that a "small minority" of voters could change the electoral system by backing AV. "In theory if only 10 people in the whole country voted and six of them said yes then that would be sufficient to change the way we elect members of parliament," observed the former Home Minister somewhat fantastically. In the quality market, commentators have been reluctant to touch the issue. Even Michael Bywater in The Independent addressed the subject by saying that he would probably vote 1) Don't Know and 2) Not Sure, before acknowledging that this would not be possible as we don't yet have AV.

Although Fleming, of Editorial Intelligence, has concerns that the turnout will be very small, he thinks that newspaper commentary could be influential in the last days before polling on 5 May. "If you read a persuasive piece on the day of the election and you happened to be going in to vote anyway in your local elections then you might be persuaded to vote one way or the other on AV."

Social media may have been pivotal in provoking democracy inspired uprisings in recent months but it has yet to really catch fire on this issue. At the time of writing the Yes campaign had acquired 11,541 "Likes" on Facebook to No's 7,801. On Twitter the No campaign has 4,956 followers compared to the Yes campaign's 6,790. It is small beer when compared with the print readerships and online audiences of many of the national newspaper titles. It was announced last week that Mail Online, the digital arm of the Daily Mail, had expanded its reach to 39,635,000 monthly users (and 4,085,000 a day), making it the second most-read news site in the world, after that of The New York Times. In a leader published in the paper and online on 19 April, the Mail described the referendum as an "irrelevant exercise" but urged its readers to go out and vote. "This public apathy may allow a small minority of AV zealots to triumph, saddling Britain with an obscure, unfair and expensive voting system that could seriously harm our chances of holding future governments to account."

The last election was electrified by television, although Nick Clegg's success in Britain's first televised debates involving party leaders was not fully reflected in the final results. But the electoral reform issue has not provided the same opportunities for broadcasting. Indeed, the BBC's rules on impartiality mean that it has even agreed to ban the use of the word "reform", after complaints from the No campaign that it implied that change would mean an improvement in the existing system. "It's fair for interviewees to use [reform] but when we describe the referendum we don't use the word 'reform'," says Ric Bailey, the BBC's chief political adviser, who has been advising the corporation's journalists. "The No side do take the view that reform is not an appropriate word and they made that case to me and I think that is justified." Bailey says it isn't the BBC's responsibility to drive voters to the polls but merely to give them appropriate information. "We are there to make sure people are equipped to vote," he says. "It's not our job to boost the turn out."

The two campaigns are doing their best to get the public interested. The Edinburgh-based advertising agency The Family has produced provocative work for the No campaign, suggesting electoral reform is too costly when the NHS and the Armed Forces are short of funds. The Yes campaign has hired the London agency Iris to do its creative work. With so many people still unclear in their views on AV, the media can still exert tremendous influence on the vote. If only it can persuade people to walk to the ballot box at all.

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