Report 5 7 November – 11 December 2019
This is the fifth in a series of weekly reports from the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture, Loughborough University on UK wide television and print media reporting of the 2019 UK General Election. These reports are published weekly throughout the campaign.
David Deacon, Jackie Goode, David Smith, Dominic Wring, John Downey, Cristian Vaccari
This campaign was widely trailed as ‘the Brexit election’. Our results show that, in media terms, it was, then it wasn’t, then it was again. Between weeks 1 to 4 Brexit became less and less focal in news coverage, only for it to resurge in the last week.
For all this prominence, our findings show that fiscal analysis of Brexit was scant, particularly when compared with evaluations of other party manifesto spending commitments and tax pledges.
The final week of the campaign saw the highest levels of newspaper negativity towards the Labour party. Negativity also increased towards other opposition parties, whereas the Conservatives’ position improved on that of the penultimate week.
This level of negativity towards Labour was far from ‘business as usual’. 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.
Our analysis of the most widely reported politicians confirms how presidentialised the campaign has been. The party leaders were particularly prominent in television coverage of the last week and Boris Johnson dominated Conservative coverage in the press. In contrast, press coverage focused far less on Jeremy Corbyn in the last week of the campaign.
The coverage of other Labour politicians was far from dispersed. Our analysis of the most prominently reported Labour politicians shows that most of the candidates now being touted as potential new Labour leaders were marginalised across all media.
We have analysed the official tweets of the parties and leaders to provide a basis for comparison with mainstream reporting. The analysis shows that presidentialisation was less evident in Twitter activity with party tweets exceeding leader tweets.
However, there was something of a two-party squeeze: Conservative and Labour twitter activity far exceeded those of the other parties. In contrast to much media reporting, particularly the press, positive rather than negative messages were dominant.
In terms of subject matter, it was clear that the parties were promoting radically different agendas. Brexit was the top issue for the Conservatives, the Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats, whereas Labour neglected Brexit and focused on health, the environment, and business.
This report has 5 sections:
- The key issues of the 2019 media campaign
- Newspaper evaluations of the parties
- Most prominent politicians in the media campaign
- Coverage of the main parties
- Campaign communication of parties on Twitter
The results in this report are drawn from a detailed content analysis of election coverage produced on the weekdays (i.e. Monday to Friday inclusive) between 7th November and 4th December. The media sampled were:
Television: Channel 4 News (7pm), Channel 5 News (6.30pm), BBC1 News at 10, ITV1 News at 10, Sky News (10-10.30pm).
Press: The Guardian, The I, The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Financial Times, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Mirror, The Sun, The Star
All election-related news items in the television programmes were analysed. For the press, all election news found on the front page, the first two pages of the domestic news section, the first two pages of any specialist election section and the page containing and facing the papers’ leader editorials were coded. For more details on the methodology of the study see https://www.lboro.ac.uk/news-events/general-election/. Intercoder reliability tests were conducted on all key variables and are ongoing.
Grateful thanks to our coding team: Eleanor Beestin, Jack Joyce, Gabriel Knott-Fayle, Sarah Lewis, Han Newman, Dayei Oh, Nathan Ritchie, Louise Tompkins and Yingzi Wang.
Section 1: The issue-agenda of the media campaign
Table 1 compares the prominence of all issues in TV and newspaper coverage during the five weeks of the formal campaign.
Table 1: Key issues in the 2019 General Election
|Business/ economy/ trade||6||9||8|
|Health/ health care||7||7||7|
|Defence/ military/ security/ terrorism||3||4||4|
|Immigration/ border controls||2||2||2|
|Scotland/ Wales/ Northern Ireland||5||1||2|
|Crime/ law and order||1||2||2|
|All other issues||3||7||6|
Note: percentages = (number of appearance of an issue/ all issues *100)
- Coverage of the electoral process itself was most prominent. This is a recurrent and predictable feature of UK election reporting. Levels of process coverage in 2019 broadly matched those observed by the CRCC in the 2017 General Election.
- As was widely anticipated, Brexit was the most prominent substantive policy issue. In 2019 Brexit gained more prominence than it did in 2017, but not by as much as one might have anticipated (13 percent compared to 11 percent). TV news gave greatest emphasis to this policy issue.
- Aside from Brexit, the clearest difference between news sectors was in coverage of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s future role in the United Kingdom. This received some prominence in TV news coverage but barely registered in press terms.
- Elsewhere, there was striking consistency between the two news sectors as to the other main issues.
- The economy, the health service and taxation commanded high levels of coverage.
- One major reason for the relatively high rankings for ‘Standards/ scandals’ and ‘Minorities/ religion’ was the allegations made against the Labour party and its supposed failure to deal with anti-Semitism in its ranks.
- The environment received more coverage than it did in 2017, but only just (up to 3 percent from 1 percent in 2017). Coverage of the environment may be increasing, but it has yet to be emphasised in party political terms in election coverage.
- Despite Boris Johnson’s controversial comments in the last week about EU migrants who ‘treat the UK as if it’s part of their own country’, coverage of ‘Immigration/ border controls’ was 2 percent down from levels observed in the 2017 General Election.
Figure 1: Top issues by week (all media)
- Brexit was by far the most dominant issue at critical points of the campaign – its start and end –but in the intervening periods its prominence lessened, to the point in week 4 that it fell behind all other three major policy themes.
- 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 previous decline of Brexit shows how it became an implicit rather than explicit aspect of coverage. Brexit was still there, but as our analysis shows it had become increasingly part of the background context of the campaign rather than its focal point.
- Health and health care coverage gained its greatest prominence in week 4, receiving slightly lower prominence in week 5.
- The growing and sustained significance of ‘standards/ scandals’ from week 3 onwards was driven initially by anti-Semitic accusations against Labour and then controversy about the Prime Minister’s allegedly uncaring response to a picture of a young child denied an emergency ward bed.
- Even when Brexit was reported, there was a lack of policy focused analysis as to what implementation might mean. This stood in contrast to the detailed appraisals often applied to other manifesto commitments. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies gained considerable campaign coverage through their analysis of parties’ spending pledges and projections. Fifty three percent of their appearances were linked to taxation related coverage and 46 percent to business and economy coverage. Only 8 percent were connected to Brexit.
Section 2: newspaper evaluations in the campaign
In this section we discuss the overall positivity or negativity of newspaper coverage. For each item, we assessed whether the information or commentary contained within it had positive or negative implications for each political party.
- Each party was separately rated in each election item.
- If an item mainly or solely focused on positive matters for a party, it was given a value of +1.
- If it mainly/ solely focused on negative matters for a party, it was assigned a value of -1.
- Items where there was (a) no clear evaluation, (b) contained positive and negative issues in broadly equal measure or (c) no mention of the party was made, were coded as zero.
- Items where no reference was made to the party were excluded from the calculation.
The scores in Figure 2.1 are calculated by subtracting the total number of negative stories from the total of positive stories for the 5 main parties for each of the three weeks of the campaign.
The scores in Figure 2.2 weight these figures by press circulations (where 1=1 million), using the same weekly division.
Figure 2.1: Overall newspaper evaluations weeks 1 - 5 (unweighted)
Figure 2.2: Overall newspaper evaluations weeks 1 - 5 (weighted by circulation)
- Both measures show Labour have accumulated very high levels of negative press coverage for every week of the campaign.
- The unweighted data shows these amounts have increased weekly and peaked in the final week of the campaign.
- The Conservative party halved its level of negative unweighted coverage in the final week.
- Increased levels of positivity towards the Conservatives in the highest circulation titles in the last week pushed the party’s weighted total above the line.
- All other opposition parties saw increased levels of negative coverage in the final week.
Figure 2.3 provides a comparison of the aggregate trends found in 2019 with those identified by the CRCC, using identical measures, in the 2017 General Election. To ensure standardisation of these measures we divided the unweighted number of positive minus negative items by the total number of newspaper items in each campaign. This produced a decimal number between -1 and +1, where -1 = complete negativity, +1= complete positivity and 0 = complete balance of negativity/ positivity.
Figure 2.3: Press evaluations of Cons & Labour: 2017 and 2019 General Elections
Section 3: Top twenty politicians
Table 3.1 shows the political campaigners that attracted most coverage across the 5 weeks of the election.
Table 3.1: Top Twenty most prominent campaigners (7 November to 11 December)
|3||John McDonnell||Labour||Shadow Chancellor||7.5|
|6||Jonathan Ashworth||Labour||Shadow Health||4.0|
|10||Priti Patel||Conservative||Home Secretary||2.0|
|11||Ian Austin||Conservative||Ex-Labour MP||1.6|
|=12||Michael Gove||Conservative||Duchy of Lancaster||1.0|
|=12||Andrew Gwynne||Labour||Campaign Co-ordinator||1.0|
|14||Angela Rayner||Labour||Shadow Education||0.9|
|15||Len McCluskey||Labour||Gen Sec, Unite||0.9|
|16||Dominic Cummings||Conservative||Chief Special Advisor||0.8|
|=17||Diane Abbott||Labour||Shadow Home Secretary||0.8|
|=17||Arron Banks||Conservative||Ex-UKIP donor||0.8|
|=17||Adam Price||Plaid Cymru||Leader/AM||0.8|
|=17||John Woodcock||Conservative||Ex-Labour MP||0.8|
Notes: percentages= individual’s appearance/ total number of items*100
- Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn were the dominant figures in an election that was highly personalised around them and their competing political visions.
- Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was a clear third in the Top Twenty and was also over twice as prominent as the current postholder Sajid Javid. This reflected the promotion and scrutiny of Labour’s ambitious infrastructure plans.
- Only five women made the Top Twenty and of these the highest placed Jo Swinson was a distant fourth behind her Conservative and Labour counterparts, and less prominent than the Shadow Chancellor. The Liberal Democrat leader was only slightly ahead of the Brexit Party’s Nigel Farage who, despite having no representation in the previous parliament, was afforded more attention than SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon.
- The prominence in the Top Ten of both Jonathan Ashworth and Matt Hancock reflects the significant debate over the future of the NHS during the campaign. Ashworth’s sixth place in this list was also due to his embarrassment following the publication of comments he had made in a private phone conversation.
- Another notable feature of the Top Twenty were the relatively prominent appearances made by campaigners formerly associated with Labour (ex-ministers and MPs Ian Austin and John Woodcock) and UKIP (Arron Banks) who had switched their support to the Conservatives. The list also featured two other unelected figures, Len McCluskey and Dominic Cummings, who were influential advisors to the Conservative and Labour leaders respectively. The list also featured two other unelected figures, Len McCluskey and Dominic Cummings, who were influential advisors to the Conservative and Labour leaders respectively.
One of the consequences of Labour’s defeat on 12 December is a leadership contest for the party. There is already considerable media speculation as to the likely ‘runners and riders’ for this contest. Table 3.2. lists the extent to which potential future party leaders commanded a media presence in the 2019 campaign.
Table 3.2: Top Twenty most prominent Labour candidates
|2||John McDonnell||Shadow Chancellor||7.5|
|3||Jonathan Ashworth||Shadow Health Secretary||4.0|
|4||Andrew Gwynne||Campaign Co-ordinator||1.0|
|5||Angela Rayner||Shadow Education Secretary||0.9|
|6||Diane Abbott||Shadow Home Secretary||0.8|
|=7||Rebecca Long-Bailey||Shadow Business Secretary||0.7|
|=7||Emily Thornberry||Shadow Foreign Secretary||0.7|
|9||Dawn Butler||Shadow Equalities Secretary||0.7|
|10||Barry Gardiner||Shadow International Trade Secretary||0.6|
|11||Keir Starmer||Shadow Brexit Secretary||0.5|
|=12||Ian Lavery||Party Chair||0.4|
|=12||Laura Pidcock||(Ex-) Shadow Employment Rights||0.4|
|=14||Richard Burgon||Shadow Justice Secretary||0.4|
|=14||Nia Griffith||Shadow Defence Secretary||0.4|
|=14||John Healey||Shadow Housing Secretary||0.4|
|=17||Andy McDonald||Shadow Transport Secretary||0.2|
Section 4: Prominence of parties
Figure 4.1 compares the levels of coverage of the political parties on TV news during the weekday coverage between 5 and 11 December inclusive3. Figure 4.2 provides the same comparison for press coverage.
 To be coded as ‘present’ a political representative needed to have an active role within the item. They could be counted even if they were not quoted, but there had to be a clear and substantial attribution to them of a speech act or action. Up to 5 politicians could be coded per item.
Figure 4.1: Prominence of political parties in TV election coverage (5 and 11 December)
Figure 4.2: Prominence of political parties in newspaper election coverage (5-11 December)
- The party leaders dominated TV coverage in the last week of the campaign. Boris Johnson accounted for 68 percent of all Conservative appearances and Jeremy Corbyn, 56 percent of Labour appearances.
- Boris Johnson also dominated press coverage, accounting for 57 percent of Conservative appearances. In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn’s press profile only amounted to 28 percent of all Labour appearances.
Figures 4.3 and 4.4 compare the distribution of party coverage across the entirety of the campaign
Figure 4.3: Prominence of political parties in TV election coverage (7 November- 11 December)
Figure 4.4: Prominence of political parties in newspaper election coverage (7 November - 11 December)
- Television was more diverse that the press in terms of the range of political parties covered. For the press, the 2019 General Election was a two-horse race and other parties struggled to gain much coverage.
- That said, television news was more ‘presidentialised’ than the press, with the party leaders commanding a greater proportion of TV coverage relative to their party colleagues.
Section 5: The Party agendas on Twitter
For this campaign we have integrated an analysis of Twitter data from the main party and leader accounts, in order to contextualise the media issue agenda with that of the political parties. The issues covered in these tweets provides a proxy in this regard. The sample for the Twitter analysis is from 18th November to 11th December inclusive, and includes original tweets only (i.e. not retweets).
Figure 5.1 demonstrates the volume of tweets posted during the sample period by each party and its leader(s). (NB. The Green Party have two co-leaders.)
Figure 5.1 Number of tweets
Figure 5.2: Top Themes
- By contrast, Labour by and large neglected Brexit, discussing it in less than 5 percent of its tweets. Labour focused predominantly on health (24.1 percent), the environment, and business.
- Besides Brexit, the Conservatives focused quite heavily on taxation (16.2 percent), which was relatively neglected by all the other parties.
- Unsurprisingly, the environment was by far the top issue for the Green Party (45.9 percent), and devolution was the key focus for the Scottish National Party (29.8 percent) and Plaid Cymru (21.4 percent).
- The Brexit Party was unique in its focus on defence and terrorism (14 percent), particularly in response to the attacks in London.
- Overall the results suggest that the main parties and their leaders fought remarkably different campaigns: the Conservatives, the LibDems, and the Brexit Party waged an all-out Brexit-centred campaign, while the other parties tried to shift the focus on the issues that they felt strongest on (the NHS for Labour, the environment for the Greens, and devolution for the SNP and Plaid).
Figure 5.3 illustrates the tenor of social media debate on the part of the parties, by coding for whether a tweet was primarily promoting the party, attacking other parties or defending.
Figure 5.3 Purpose of Tweets
- While the campaign has arguably been characterized by high levels of negativity, overall the tone of the parties’ tweets has been substantially more positive than negative.
- All parties were positive in their tweets at least half the time, with the Conservatives posting 75 percent positive tweets and the Brexit Party, Greens, and Plaid Cymru all posting 60 percent or more positive tweets.
- While Labour, the SNP and the LibDems also posted more positive than negative tweets, they were more likely than the other parties to attack their opponents.
- Nearly half (44.5 percent) of the tweets posted by the Lib-Dems were negative, compared to 39.4 percent for the SNP and 30.1 percent for Labour.
- By contrast, only 22.4 percent of the Conservatives’ tweets were negative, the smallest percentage among all the parties apart from the Greens (11.6 percent).
- The data show a clear difference between the campaigning style of the incumbent party, overwhelmingly focused on marshalling support for the Government and its Brexit deal, and the main challengers, who spent much more time and efforts attacking the Conservatives.