General election: British newspapers’ attacks on Labour have intensified while Tories continue to get positive coverage, study finds

Jeremy Corbyn’s party met with deepening hostility while Tories lose shine as election campaign enters end stages

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Monday 02 December 2019 15:20
General Election 2019: Opinion polls over the last seven days

Negative press coverage of Labour’s election campaign has intensified, while coverage of the Tories remains positive overall, new analysis shows.

During the third week of the election campaign, a Loughborough University study found a persistent gulf between media reporting on Jeremy Corbyn’s party and the Conservatives under Boris Johnson.

Labour commands the highest number of column inches of all the parties, the study found, but academics said the greater prominence “should not be assumed to deliver a political advantage to the opposition”.

Researchers analysed the overall negativity and positivity of newspaper coverage of all the main political parties, assigning a positive value of +1 to stories that could benefit each party and -1 to pieces that held damaging implications for the party.

Labour faced overwhelmingly negative coverage in the first week with a -71.17 ranking, dropping to -71.96 in the second week and -75.79 last week.

This compared to a positive +29.98 for the Conservatives in the first week, falling to +17.86 in the second week and +15.87 in the third week.

“The high levels of newspaper negativity towards Labour identified in the first week of the campaign were sustained into week two and increased marginally in week three,” the report said.

The remaining parties fluctuated around the baseline, with the Lib Dems ranging from -15 in the first week, to +6 the second week and -11 last week. The SNP remained between -4 and -6, while the Brexit Party went from -20 to -2.35 during that time.

However the academics explained these changes were coloured by these parties ”struggling to gain coverage” due to the dominance of Labour and the Tories.

As the smaller parties becomes increasingly squeezed, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson both received significantly more coverage than any other political figures with 27.7 per cent for the Labour leader and 25.9 per cent for the prime minister.

Jo Swinson trailed both men on 5.4 per cent, while shadow chancellor John McDonnell was in fourth place amid continued scrutiny of Labour’s tax and spending plans.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, rose to fifth place on 3.7 per cent, Nigel Farage had 2.3 per cent and Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price secured 1.2 per cent of the coverage – following a series of televised debates. The Greens failed to feature among the top 20 political figures.

Brexit remains the most covered policy topic but its dominance has been squeezed by the publication of party manifestos and a rise in stories on Islamophobia and antisemitism, the study found.

In the third week, Brexit appeared in 11 per cent of all stories, compared to 16.2 per cent in the first week, while taxation has surged from 2.7 per cent to 10.6 per cent last week.

Coverage of “scandals/sleaze” soared from 2.9 per cent at the beginning of the campaign to 9 per cent last week and and stories in the “minorities/religion/sexuality” category also surged to 7.2 percent from 1.8 per cent over the same period.

Both increases were caused by reporting on Labour’s handling of antisemitism and complaints of Islamophobia in the Tory party following major interventions by high-profile religious figures.

The researchers said: “Brexit remains the main substantive policy issue of the campaign, but its newsworthiness has declined for a second consecutive week.

“Other issues have moved up the agenda in its wake: with taxation and themes related to antisemitism and Islamophobia becoming particularly prominent.

“As things currently stand, the 2019 General Election is proving to be anything but a single-issue campaign.”

Broadcasters are bound by stricter impartiality rules during the official election campaign period but newspapers are free to continue to cover the parties as normal. The study did not include online publications, such as The Independent.

Researchers carried out analysis of election coverage produced on the weekdays between 7 and 27 November.

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