There’s been much discussion about the coming election being dominated – even decided – by social media. To judge by the first few weeks, the biggest impact will actually be made by our old friends, the anti-social media. If belligerent newspapers can pick so many quarrels by March, how loud will they be by May?
The principal object of their scorn has been the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, staggering under a volume of venom rarely seen since the days of Neil Kinnock. The right-wing papers fondly remember – and cannot believe there might have been other reasons for his failure – the way in which they snatched victory from Kinnock’s grasp 23 years ago. We can see how eager they are to crush the latest Labour leader.
That is why the Mail on Sunday took such an interest in the recollections of a former mayor of Doncaster, whose account of life with Miliband – the Labour leader had stayed with his family when he was looking for his parliamentary seat in the town – was calculated to present a figure bearing the qualities of Rowan Atkinson’s comic creation Mr Bean rather than a future prime minister.
For some observers – mainly the left liberal ones – these assaults by the press are a capitalist wickedness that does grievous harm to democracy. The papers with the biggest readerships – runs this simplistic narrative – are in the hands of wealthy men who, for all their misgivings about David Cameron, cannot countenance a left-wing government.
Before we climb on too many high horses, we should remember three things: first, when politicians are so eager to present a walking, talking, living personality to the public, they should not complain when that personality is put under scrutiny. No one in the media forced Miliband to eat a bacon sandwich for the photographers last year: his minders suggested it under the impression that he could do so in a convincing manner.
Second, the idea that Miliband comes short of greatness is not dreamed up only by his opponents, but shared by many in his own party. Those Labour supporters who question his fitness for office must know that they help feed criticism of him in the press.
Third, we believe – don’t we? – in free speech, which surely allows rich proprietors to exercise that right in their own interests. We can leave the BBC to have a stab at impartiality. In any case, the vitriol poured upon Cameron and Osborne by many writers in The Guardian, Mirror and Independent is no less poisonous. It merely fails to reach so many people.
We should remember too that newspapers – on both sides – act like this because it brings back some of the fun they fear is going out of publishing. Only brutal crime and terrible disaster cheer a newspaper staff as much as an election campaign, a few weeks during which normal work can be postponed in favour of a train out of town and the campaign sketches that are such fun to produce, if not so much to read: not every news reporter is a natural colour writer.
Sadly, the new economics of newspapers – a lack of budget for travel and a shortage of staff to go anywhere – means there will be less on-the-spot reporting than in the past. Instead, we can expect more of the political opinion and fabricated fury that can be produced so readily from a desk.
Will this old-fashioned, knockabout contribution make any difference to the outcome? That is a question asked many times – and never answered with the level of conviction that would allow us to forget it. For all the boasting – “It was The Sun wot won it” – the greater wisdom is that papers follow rather than lead and that readers tend not to alter their voting intentions at the behest of an editorial. In any case, the psephologists tell us that this election will be won across the key marginal seats, where we can expect to see the parties try to bypass a cynical national press in favour of local reporters who take a less biased view.
Yet if the vehemence of the papers does not settle the result, it must surely affect the candidates. Politicians would be even less human than we imagined if they did not recoil from each new horror story and confected outrage. No wonder they prefer now to offer themselves to television and local media than to a largely sceptical national press. No wonder too they are interested in the potential of social media. They should be careful: that we are learning, is a medium that makes newspapers seem polite.