British press dramatically cut criticism of ruling Tories for 2019 election, study finds

Coverage of Labour was also over twice as hostile compared to previous poll

Jon Stone
Saturday 21 December 2019 11:00 GMT
Labour shadow minister suggests BBC partly to blame for party's defeat

Hostile press coverage aimed at the Labour Party at the 2019 election was more than double the intensity found during 2017’s poll, according to a study of the two campaigns.

Researchers at Loughborough University, who have been tracking political news coverage, also found that British newspapers were half as critical of the Conservative Party in this month’s election as they were in the one two years ago.

Tracking newspaper coverage over five weeks of the 2019 election, the academics found that the intensity of hostile coverage of opposition parties peaked in the final days of the campaign.

By contrast, coverage weighted by circulation was mostly positive about the Conservative Party, with coverage of Boris Johnson’s party improving in the final week.

“This level of negativity towards Labour was far from ‘business as usual’,” the researchers said in a summary of their findings.

“Press hostility to Labour in 2019 was more than double the levels identified in 2017. By the same measure, negative coverage of the Conservatives halved.”

The research also reveals a high presidentialised campaign, with Mr Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn by far the most prominent figures in the media coverage. The researchers found that most contenders for the next Labour leadership contest featured little in coverage.

The study found that Brexit was “by far the most dominant issue” at critical points in the campaign – its start and end – but in intervening periods its prominence was lower.

“Research has shown that many voters only start paying attention in the last days of an election, so the final rush of Brexit coverage could have been consequential,” the researchers said.

While the Conservatives had the edge in press coverage in 2017, the researchers found that the media landscape was much closer at the previous election: the Conservatives had a balance of minus 0.09 to Labour’s minus 0.13 in the balance of positive and negative stories – meaning Labour was only somewhat more negatively portrayed.

In 2019, however, the Conservatives’ balance was negative 0.04, while Labour’s was negative 0.30, far less positive.

Because the largest newspapers were more friendly to the Conservatives, when weighted by circulation, the final week of the 2019 election gave the Tories a positive score of 30.17 while Labour’s was minus 96.66 – a vast gulf in treatment.

All opposition parties were portrayed negatively, with only the ruling Tories portrayed in a positive light.

The report was produced by the university’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture. The researchers assessed items from the print editions of The Guardian, The i, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, Financial Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Mirror, The Sun, and Daily Star, and assessed each printed item on whether it included a positive, negative, or neutral portrayal of each party.

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