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March 13, 2024

Partisan publishers: Why Keir Starmer will have an easier election than Neil Kinnock

Press Gazette has analysed press circulation, website and broadcast data to weigh the strength of right-wing media.

By Dominic Ponsford

After the 1992 UK general election, the UK’s top-selling newspaper claimed on its front page: “It was The Sun what won it.”

John Major’s Conservative Party achieved an unlikely and narrow 21-seat majority helped by an election day front page from The Sun intended to panic voters away from voting Labour after 13 years of Tory rule. It said: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person in Britain please turn out the lights?”

Conservative peer Lord McAlpine said at the time that editors Sir David English (of the Daily Mail), Sir Nicholas Lloyd (of the Daily Express) and Kelvin MacKenzie of The Sun were the “heroes of this campaign” for their strong support of the Conservatives and comprehensive attacks on Labour.

At the time, their titles boasted a combined circulation of seven million versus three million for the Daily Mirror, the only left-wing tabloid. Bearing in mind readership will have been at least double the circulation figure, it is possible that strong support from a partisan press could have made the difference in the election result.

In 1992 print newspapers had a monopoly on opinionated journalism in the UK with broadcasters all strictly adhering to impartiality rules and the first news websites still a few years away.

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UK media bias: Right-leaning newspapers still hold advantage in print

Going into the next general election Labour leader Keir Starmer will still have to contend with a largely right-wing printed press, but one that is far less influential today than it was in 1992.

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Since 1931, when Stanley Baldwin attacked the power of the press barons for exercising “power without responsibility”, the role of right-wing press owners has been viewed by those on the left as a way of sloping the electoral playing field in favour of the Conservative Party. But in 2024 the power of the right-wing press is vastly outweighed by politically neutral broadcasters and news websites.

Barring a series of surprisingly sharp reverse ferrets, Starmer can expect to face staunchly critical election coverage from the Mail titles, Express titles, Sun and Telegraph which today have a combined circulation of around 1.8 million copies.

The Times, Sunday Times and Evening Standard are generally more even-handed in their coverage but endorsed the Conservatives at the last general election. Only The Guardian and the Daily Mirror, with a combined circulation of 300,000, are broadly left-wing in their coverage.

This gives right-leaning daily newspaper titles a substantial 2.2 million to 300,000 circulation advantage over left-wing titles. They also sell more than the 1.7 million combined circulation of neutral and left-wing daily newspaper titles. This daily newspaper picture is broadly mirrored among Sunday title stablemates.

(Note: The author has estimated current sales of The Times, Sun and Telegraph because they do not publish ABC figures any more).

Where things get considerably easier for Keir Starmer than his predecessor Neil Kinnock is when you look at the overall sources of news in the UK. The vast majority are neutral with just two opinionated newsbrands making it into the top 20 sources of news listed by Britons responding to the annual Ofcom survey of news consumption.

Ofcom asked 4,556 adults to name all the platforms they use for news "nowadays" in 2023.

The neutral BBC and other broadcasters dominate the list while some 14% of Britons said they use the right-leaning Mail brands for news and 10% cited the left-leaning Guardian/Observer brands. No other partisan titles feature in the Ofcom top 20.

Facebook is used by 30% of Britons for news. Although a neutral platform, it has been hijacked in the past by political interests to secretly serve its users with misleading political advertising (as was the case with Vote Leave during the 2016 EU referendum). The role of social media, and misinformation, in the next UK general election remains to be seen.

Online news less slanted towards the right than printed press

Looking at the UK's leading news websites, most titles in the top 50 which cover some UK politics are neutral. Adding up their total monthly reach, left-leaning sites have a total UK monthly audience of 80 million, right-leaning sites total 105 million and neutral sites have a combined total UK reach of 166 million.

The conclusion is that the online news world is considerably less slanted towards the right than the national printed press. The Times website and Standard are broadly neutral online, but appear in the "right-wing" total because of their 2019 election endorsements.

The rise of right-wing broadcasters

The next general election will be the first one in which the UK has a politically-biased broadcaster in the form of GB News (which leans to the right). However, just looking at the news channels, its influence is far outweighed by politically neutral Sky and BBC News. We have included TalkTV in our analysis, although it will soon close as a linear TV channel.

In terms of average daily viewer minutes, according to broadcast data body Barb TalkTV and GB News together total 3.5 million minutes versus 28 million for BBC News and Sky News.

Sister radio stations amplify the reach of the right-wing channels. But as the Ofcom news consumption survey above shows, their reach is tiny compared to the mainstream broadcasters who are all politically neutral.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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