Gorkana Insight & Analysis Team
At Millbank Media Centre this week a panel of veteran media execs and former Conservative leadership candidate Rt. Hon David Davis MP engaged in a lively debate to decide whether the press is losing its influence.
Chairing the event was former BBC Director General Greg Dyke, who with Davis was joined by publisher and broadcaster Andrew Neil; former deputy editor of The Sunday Times and editor of the Sunday Express Sue Douglas; and co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and FT contributing editor John Lloyd.
The changing format of newspapers
Greg Dyke kicked off by explaining the circulation of every national newspaper had decreased significantly over the last ten years. The Mirror’s circulation had decreased 48%, The Daily Telegraph 42%, The Independent 51%, The Guardian 45%, The Sunday Times 32%, The Sunday Times 32%, The Sun 23% and The Daily Mail 18%.
“But counting the circulation of newspapers is like counting steam train passengers numbers in the age of electrical engines,” countered Neil.
“The reach of the UK media has never been bigger. The British press now has a global reach with the Guardian’s content now reaching an audience of 90 million people. The Spectator’s reach is now 550,000 where it was 200,000 only a couple of years ago.”
The Economist and Financial Times also had global audiences and with more people than ever accessing content digitally and through mobile devises, Neil explained this is only set to continue.
The challenge, Neil added, was for newspapers to rebuild their business models in order to generate more revenues through new channels and events. The new audiences had yet to be monetised.
Sue Douglas, who is trying to launch a new Sunday newspaper herself, agreed with Neil.
“Attitudes and stories are the commodity – not the newspapers,” she explained. “We need to look at the distribution of stories in a new way, on new platforms” she said. “News outlets need to be neat, small, cost-effective and ultimately sell the story.”
But the changing business model of newspapers had led to a decrease in the number of journalists in newsrooms over the last ten years, added Dyke.
“Bad newspapers don’t get closed down, they get bought by someone that wants to join the British establishment” explained Neil, citing The Daily Express and The Independent.
Whilst the panel agreed there had been a decimation of regional newspapers over the last ten years, Neil came out in the defence of national newspapers explaining the British print media was “the best designed, written and most competitive in the world - and therefore the most adaptable.” He added many of the red-top tabloids had lost their unique selling point in a multi channel digital age, with more free view channels now covering sport and celebrity news than ever before.
David Davis added the UK’s most influential news media was the BBC with 50% of people’s opinions decided by the Corporation. “Editors can see exactly how popular stories are by tracking the web traffic of their news sites.”
Leveson: is regulation unwelcome?
64% of the population surveyed by a YouGov poll on the power of newspapers believed that the British press had been tarnished by the actions of only a few journalists. 44% percent also believed that underhand investigative journalism was justified if it uncovered wrong doing.
The panel was unanimous in its agreement about the Leveson Inquiry. “It’s become a grudge match for every politician that’s had a run-in with a journalist,” said Neil.
In the context of breaking the law, phone hacking could be justified however, if the result was the right one, but journalists must be prepared to take the consequences. Investigative journalism is set to continue said Neil, but he wanted to see more resources given to it and for it to be in the national interest.
The panel was unanimous in agreeing that press regulation would be wrong.
“The Dominique Strauss-Kahn story shows danger of an overregulated press,” said David Davis. “French privacy laws meant that reporting of the former IMF chief’s alleged involvement in a legal case was censored until it was broken by international outlets.”
Newspapers’ political influence
The panel agreed the influence of The Sun in selling Mrs Thatcher to parts of the UK population in the 1980s, who had never considered voting Conservative before, helped bring electoral success.
A change in the relationship between the media and politicians began during the Tony Blair’s administration. “Blair’s Government created wide and deep interlocking nexus of relationships with News International,” said Neil.
This followed the media’s treatment of Neil Kinnock during the 1992 election and as a result, New Labour changed its relationships with News international allowing access to all levels of Government.
John Lloyd elaborated how the press had been responsible for making Tony Blair a "prince" but eventually made him a "frog".
A decade later and David Cameron repeated the strategy, employing Andrew Coulson to do the job Alistair Campbell performed for Tony Blair.
On the increase of MPs using digital channels for communicating, David Davis said, “MPs are turning to Twitter to communicate with their electorate, but it comes with a large overhead in time,”
He added that the local media and the BBC are the key routes for MPs to communicate with their electorate. “Newspapers have a drip, drip, effect on the electorate but their influence is exaggerated.”
“If MPs still believe that newspapers have a huge influence, they live in an analogue world,” said Neil. “The influence of newspapers in politics is in decline and it would be happening a lot faster if politicians realised what was happening,” he added.
“Every newspaper in the last election but three called for the electorate to vote for Conservative. Two called for the LibDems and one for Labour. But it didn’t help the Conservatives secure a majority,” said Neil. “The influence of the press on society is changing, of that there is no doubt, but it is seemingly as strong as ever on the political classes.”
Write up from Doug Keighley