How was it for you?

Some reflections on the media in the 2024 General Election by Professor Peter Golding

A watershed election? If so not one on which much light has been shed by the mainstream media. As the stopwatches ticked and computers hummed, and detailed calibration of the media coverage of this most curious of election campaigns moved towards its climax, we have seen again the rightward partisanship of most of the UK press and the irreversible presidentialisation of our politics in recent times. But how much interest in, or indeed influence on, political outcomes do the mainstream media now have?

This time it has been difficult for them to maintain interest, when the outcome has been predicted and predictable for some considerable time. Much interest in the past has been on the ‘horse race’ dynamics – who will win, by how much, and is it a tight thing? The polling industry took prime position with frequent and expensive use of their output. It was indefatigable letter writer to the Guardian, Keith Flett, who reminded us that “The late socialist historian EP Thompson writing on the 1959 election in the New Reasoner noted that: “A psephologist is a man employed by the mass media to research into what people think the mass media has told them to think.” 

This time, with the Labour Party regularly, and for some months, predicted to sail home by a large majority, only the intrusion of the populist surge represented by Nigel Farage (a serious presence once his candidature was made clear, though at his most entertaining when ‘milkshaked’), and Reform have injected much interest.

Rishi Sunak’s extraordinarily gaffe-prone campaign, from ‘Things Can Only Get Wetter’ on election announcement day, to wishing the Welsh well in a soccer tournament whose final stages they had not even managed to reach, or premature departure from the D-Day ceremonies, seemed almost designed to capture sympathy, if not aghast intakes of breath, from the political PR gurus.

This unseemly sequence was matched by Keir Starmer’s uncanny talent for portraying comforting innocuousness while managing to outrage supporters of his own long-abandoned left-wing assertions, Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, local constituency parties, or Gaza.

Desperate to keep election fever in normal mode alive, the Daily Express and Daily Mail hammered  away at variations of the usual ‘Labour tax bombshell’ theme, while the Olympian judgement of the Institute for Fiscal Studies was that both main parties were engaged in a ‘conspiracy of silence’ about the impossibility of reducing, or at least containing, taxes while mending what all regarded as ‘broken Britain’.

As in earlier studies of media election coverage it was striking just how often other things prevailed as of greater interest – the Euros, Princess Anne’s mishaps, Kate’s return to public life, the disappearance of TV presenter Michael Mosley, the Taylor Swift tour. In telling the public so little about the election the UK mainstream media managed the equivalent of ‘none of the above’ on the ballot paper, a disdainful turning away from the noise of debate without attempting to replace it with anything more profound.   

On the first Sunday after the manifestos were published in the Sun on Sunday led with ‘Premier Ace Secret Sex Party’, the Star with ‘Our Magic Balls Will Stop the Hand of God’. The following day the Daily Star gave us ‘Rise of the Bog Snackers’ (about people who eat while on the loo it turns out), while the Sun revealed that ‘We Wuz Robbed’ – not a political allusion but a story about the theft of a football trophy.

Stories about obsessions with TV star Holly Willoughby, the Julian Assange release, and triumphantly, the Daily Star ‘s ‘Invasion of the Gaping Bog Crawlers’ all kept front page interest alive, as did the unlikely turns in US politics, especially the night ‘a lying ‘manbaby’ beat up a doddery old bloke live on TV’. By the final Sunday of the campaign the election and England’s Euro progress were vying for attention, the Sunday People putting both Keir Starmer and Harry Kane on the front page with the shared headline ‘It’s All to Play For’. 

Of course, as the careful analysis in these Loughborough reports makes plain, there was much of political salience in the press and TV in 2024, especially around taxation. But for the umpteenth time we have been told this is ‘the first social media’ election (a refrain familiar for many years now). The television debates palpably matter less than ever. The first TV leaders’ debate in 2010 was watched by 9.4 million viewers. In 2015 this dropped to 7 million, while on June 27th this year the debate was watched by 2.7 million (14.5 million people watched the soporific football match between England and Slovenia on June 25th.).

While attention to newspapers and TV declined or simply nodded off, the parties devoted increasing attention to advertising on social media. By the third week of the campaign Labour had spent £2.7 million on social media advertising and the Conservatives just over £1 million. But all indicators seem to suggest that, despite this gulf in spend between the two main parties, it has actually been Reform who gained most by social media activity, with much larger numbers of social media page interactions than other parties, and huge numbers following and disseminating interventions by Nigel Farage, to bolster his already frequent appearances on BBC TV’s Question Time -10 times in the last nine years, more than most, though 1 less than Green Party leader (until recently) Caroline Lucas.

The British Social Attitudes Surveys have shown how trust and confidence in government and central political institutions have declined in recent years. Its most recent report, published shortly before the election was declared, charts the continuing rise in political disenchantment in the UK, and growing dissatisfaction with the voting system and the political structure. Nearly half of respondents who voted ‘leave’ in the 2016 Brexit referendum ‘almost never trust politicians to tell the truth’, and well under half  of all respondents believe the current system produces effective government.

The displacement of policy news by distraction, of bread by circuses, creates an alarming vacuum into which the practices and enticements of populism and extremism readily expand. Perhaps the lesson of the media election of 2024, in both the UK and the USA (and elsewhere too, as in France), is just how loud the alarm bells should be ringing about rising political disengagement and right-wing populism. 

Peter Golding is emeritus Professor at Northumbria University, UK, and while at Loughborough University co-directed its UK general election media studies between 1992 and 2005.