Leading article: Misunderstanding media influence

Thursday 01 October 2009 00:00 BST

The Sun newspaper decides to rescind its support for Labour and the political world is turned on its head – or so you would assume from the reaction in the rest of the media yesterday. Sky News spent much of the day reporting on the political reaction to the decision of its News International stable mate. One wonders whether this is a good advert for the media "independence" and "plurality" that James Murdoch spoke up for in Edinburgh in August.

But, in fairness, it was not just News International outlets that were getting excited about this development yesterday. BBC radio and television news programmes were full of coverage of the supposedly crucial development.

All this is over the top. And not just because this change in The Sun's support was heavily signposted and long expected. It is excessive because it reflects a hopeless misunderstanding about the power of the media.

Newspapers can – and do – help shape public opinion through their campaigns and coverage. But their influence on how their readers vote is far more subtle than many seem to grasp. The idea that people read their favourite newspaper's instructions and then robotically go out and vote is laughable – and certainly not borne out by any evidence. Moreover, in this instance, The Sun is plainly following public opinion, rather than shaping it. The opinion polls show that the public mood in much of the country swung against Labour some time ago.

The real influence of newspapers lies not in their hold over the votes of their readers, but in their hold over elected politicians. The architects of New Labour bought into the myth that The Sun effectively decides the outcome of general elections after the surprise Conservative victory in 1992 and have spent immense effort on wooing the newspaper and its proprietor ever since. This grew into a general obsession with the media, with ministers governing with one eye, sometimes two, on the next day's headlines.

The truth is that the media has as much power and influence as elected politicians allow it to have: yesterday's agonising over The Sun's editorial line is a clear indication of a government that has given it far too much in recent years.

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