“It’s The Sun Wot Won It.”
Sun headline, 11 April 1992
Can the nation’s biggest-selling newspaper influence the outcome of general elections?
It was a claim first made on the front page of the Sun in 1992, when the paper bragged that it had won the general election for John Major’s Conservatives.
The tabloid had led an increasingly personal campaign against the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, culminating in the famous election day headline: “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights.”
The Sun’s owner Rupert Murdoch later told the Leveson Inquiry that the “Won It” headline had been “tasteless and wrong”, adding: “We don’t have that sort of power.”
But the suspicion remains that the press in general, and the Sun in particular, do wield considerable power to influence the electorate.
Today’s UK edition of the Sun has come out in favour of the Conservatives, while the red top’s Scottish edition backs Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP, who some polls suggest are on course to all but wipe Labour out north of the border.
This has led to speculation that Mr Murdoch is pulling the strings to try to engineer an overall Conservative victory.
But the Scottish Sun says in a leader: “This is a Scottish newspaper, produced in Scotland by a Scottish editorial team, fighting for the best interests of our readers. If that means we take a position different to our colleagues down south, then so be it.”
Does the Sun seek to influence its readers’ political views or simply echo them?
The Sun was a Labour paper until 1979, when it came out for Margaret Thatcher, telling readers “Vote Tory This Time”.
The Conservatives won, but the Sun didn’t try to take the credit, probably with good reason.
Despite the unambiguous message to voters, a Mori poll the weekend after the election asked Sun readers which party the paper supported.
A third said the Conservatives, a third didn’t know and a third thought it still supported Labour.
Since then, whichever party the tabloid has backed at a general election has gone on to win, with the exception of 2010, when readers were urged to vote Conservative but did not give David Cameron a majority.
Could that just be a case of the Sun backing the winning horse? In most cases, the party the Sun supported was well ahead in the polls at the time.
The 1992 election is an exception. Here Labour were very slightly ahead on the eve of the election – when the Sun’s sub-editors would have been putting the finishing touches to their Kinnock-bashing front page.
But as the New Statesman’s election website May2015 points out, Labour had been losing ground in the last 100 days before the election and the momentum in the polls was with the Tories.
So this could have been a clever punt on the nation’s mood by the Sun rather than evidence of its editors swaying voters’ opinions.
Politics experts think it’s the change of sides that holds the key to finding out what kind of power newspapers have over their readers.
After all, it’s no surprise that Sun readers voted Conservative in 1992. Perhaps they were just natural Tory voters who bought the paper because it had echoed their views for years.
But if readers change their allegiance en masse when the Sun switched sides, that would be good evidence of the paper’s power to persuade.
They didn’t, according to Professor John Curtice.
He found that “the pattern of vote switching during the campaign amongst readers of The Sun or any other ex-Tory newspaper proved to be much like that of those who did not read a newspaper at all”.
“The defection of some newspapers from the Conservative camp thus failed to make any apparent positive contribution to Labour’s attempts to garner the vote.”
He notes that support for Labour actually fell in the year before the 1997 election, despite support from the Sun and other papers. Labour had the backing of 57 per cent of the electorate in the middle of 1996 but only got 43 per cent of the vote the following year.
In contrast, the only party no major newspaper backed – the Liberal Democrats – rose in popularity.
Prof Curtice concludes: “Securing the support of The Sun may well have been a psychological boost for Mr. Blair. Our analysis suggests it may even have secured him a few votes. But it was not The Sun wot won it in 1997.”
In the 2010 election the Sun’s decision to back the Tories appears to have had a bigger effect on its readers.
Among all voters, there was a swing from Labour to Conservative of about 5 per cent between 2005 and 2010. But among Sun readers the swing was a massive 13.5 per cent.
This sounds like impressive evidence of the sway the Sun holds over its readers.
But Sir Robert Worcester from the LSE notes that most of the swing – 12.5 per centage points – had already happened before the Sun declared its support for David Cameron.
That makes it look very much like the editors were being led by the readers, not the other way round.
Beyond The Sun
This Loughborough University study shows how daily papers have changed their support for the biggest parties since 1992:
The basic point is that the party that wins the most votes has always had the most press support in terms of circulation in recent years.
But the researchers point out that the years 1997 to 2005 are probably a historical anomaly. Since 1918, the Conservatives have generally had more press support, but that has clearly not always delivered Conservative majorities.
They also note that the revival of the Tory press after 2005 “is somewhat diminished by the overall decline in newspaper readership over the last two decades”.
“Consequently, although the Conservatives’ enjoyed a larger lead in print media terms over Labour in 2010 than they did in 1992, the downward trend in circulation between these two campaigns inevitably diminishes the electoral potency of the press.”
We’ll probably never be able to say decisively how much newspapers influence their readers. Often, readers themselves say they don’t know.
In-depth analysis of the Sun’s influence on the 1992 election is lacking, although the fact that Labour were slightly ahead in the polls when the newspaper launched its famous attack on Neil Kinnock was unusually brave.
The 1997 election has been studied extensively and analysis suggests the Sun’s switch of support did not decisively swing the vote for Tony Blair.
It’s interesting to note that Sun readers did swing back to the Conservatives in very large numbers in 2010, though it’s difficult to know what to make of this.
The fact that most of the change in support happened before the paper came out for Cameron suggests that newspapers may follow the opinions of their readers rather than trying to dictate them.