As much as we'd all like to think that things have fundamentally changed in our modern 24 hour society, in that our traditional media of newsprint, television and radio, the so-called Fourth Estate, has or is being replaced by the new electronic mediums of personal blogs, Twitter and Facebook, in reality, the pervasive and oftentimes malignant influence of the old established media remains largely intact, because guess what? they have websites, blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds too!
Of course, truly objective reporting by the media is generally good for any democracy, as so the theory goes, it helps keep government honest and accountable to its electorate, which in an ideal world is what most people want and expect. However, that all pre-supposes that the media, along with its owners, managers, editors, correspondents and presenters are prepared to offer their readers and viewers a completely unbiased view of the subject under discussion, which overlooks the basic fact that they are people too, with their own personal views, opinions, prejudices and bias, so just how or why should we trust their version of events anyway?
Studies undertaken in the United States has shown that public attitudes and therefore voting intentions can often be swayed and manipulated by the deliberate use of particular words and sometimes wholly misrepresentative headlines, something that most newspaper proprietors have become adept at employing. Whilst academic studies have proven that opinion polls can sometimes help affect voter intentions by up to 3-4% in elections, similarly good or bad newspaper headlines, or media coverage is likely to be no less instrumental in affecting the outcomes of important public ballots.
These same American studies have found that it is due to the influence of the Fourth Estate, the traditional print press and broadcasters, that party and policy are no longer the principal determinants in most voters minds, but rather the individual candidate themselves, thereby helping to create the idea of a "Presidential" election, as opposed to a party political one. By backing or attacking an individual leader's personality, character or stand on a particular issue then the media can directly affect the election hopes of that particular candidate, depending on whether they choose to pursue a highly positive or negative campaign against them.
One only has to look at the recent press and media campaign that was waged against the Labour leader Ed Miliband in the UK General Election, to see how damaging such an approach can be. Condemned for not being able to eat a bacon sandwich, castigated for supposedly being anti-business and charged with being held to ransom by rabid left-wing Scottish Nationalists, who would take the entire country to hell in a handcart, the Fourth Estate's strategy of attacking the candidate, rather than his party, proved to be a highly effective approach; and one that was both endorsed and echoed by his main political opponent David Cameron.
For his part, Cameron was not only portrayed as competent and experienced, but also as business-friendly and resistant to pressure from other political interests, qualities that were not necessarily accurate reflections of the man himself. In fact, Cameron more than Miliband had already shown himself to be susceptible to outside pressure, not least by the way he had been forced to offer the country a public referendum on the question of Britain's EU membership, as a direct result of the presence of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP. To help counter the impression that UKIP were in fact driving the political agenda in the UK, once again the ranks of the press and media used their still considerable influence to selectively undermine its electoral presence by both highlighting the negative and downplaying the positive aspects of its overall election message.
Obviously it is no secret that the likes of Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers, Richard Desmond, the Rothermere family, Alexander Lebedev, etc. consider themselves to be the "king makers" of Britain's political system, bringing with them the circulations of their various publications to help influence the voting intentions of the wider British electorate. Of course, were they just only in their traditional print format, then their electoral influence would have been greatly lessened by the emergence of online content, but they too have recognised the change in reader's habits and have invested heavily in the new electronic media, thus allowing them to retain a large proportion of their traditional readerships, who are still readily inclined to follow a newspaper's lead when it comes to political and economic "truths".
Interestingly, according to most polling, journalists are much more likely to be trusted by the public than politician's are, with an estimated 22% of people likely to trust a journalist, rather than the 16% who say they would trust an elected politician. And yet that 22% is still well below the 31% who say that they trust bankers, who the press would have us believe are some of the most despised and reviled people in the country? All the same it does seem astonishing that according to the polls less than one in four people would actually trust a journalist to tell them the truth; and yet there is some evidence to suggest that a great deal more people seem to take them at their word when they're badmouthing or undermining a political figure. Of course that then begs the question, are we just naturally inclined to believe anything that's bad about a politician, just because he's a politician; and did people choose David Cameron over Ed Miliband, just because he wasn't quite as bad a politician as his opponent was? Maybe a case of a "plague on all your houses, but less so on his"?
In an ideal world, one wouldn't have a print media that was dominated by private capital interests, but then we don't live in an ideal world, so there's no point in whining about people like Rupert Murdoch acting like political king-makers, because after all, he's paid millions of pounds for the privilege; and we don't have to listen to him if we don't want to. However, when it comes to publicly-funded broadcasting, such as the BBC, then we have a right to expect that it should be transparent, even-handed and above reproach, something that it clearly isn't and hasn't been for a number of years. Quite apart from the fact that it has been proven to be a safe, well paid haven for any number of paedophiles and sex-pests over the years, the fact that it has been allowed to become partial and wholly biased in its political output should be a worry for any democratic nation, let alone one that attempts to export that same ideology to other less enlightened states around the world.
Like I said at the beginning of this blog article the problem with the Fourth Estate is that it "all pre-supposes that the media, along with its owners, managers, editors, correspondents and presenters are prepared to offer their readers and viewers a completely unbiased view of the subject under discussion, which overlooks the basic fact that they are people too, with their own personal views, opinions, prejudices and bias". And the problem for the BBC, which is after all funded by the British people through the licence fee, is that they have still not managed to eliminate those personal views, opinions, prejudices and bias, meaning that all too often their output is still being tarnished by those same personal partialities.
Depending on ones political persuasion of course, the BBC's bias might be manifested in any number of ways, with the Conservative Party now bitterly complaining that the corporation had exhibited extraordinary levels of bias towards the Labour Party and against the Tories themselves, In what can only be described as the most risible complaint ever made against a national broadcaster, one wonders just what the reaction would have been had the Conservatives been subjected to the level of partiality and bias that was levelled at UKIP and its representatives. Not only were the party maliciously misrepresented by the entire Fourth Estate, with the exception of Richard Desmond's Express group, but the BBC also seemed to adopt a very clear and blatant strategy of publicly demeaning the party whenever possible, whether by purposefully avoiding any mention of it at all during electoral bulletins, by focusing on negative news stories surrounding the party, or by giving less weight to its policies, most notably in terms of its fully costed election manifesto.
Despite having been accorded major party status by the communications ombudsman OFCOM, due to its electoral support in the country; and by virtue of it having won the 2014 European Elections, the first time a third party had done so in electoral history, the BBC seemed to have taken the view, in direct opposition to OFCOM's ruling, that UKIP would be treated as a minor political party, ostensibly on the basis of its own questionable argument that UKIP were a regional party, as opposed to a national one. Leaving aside that UKIP had electoral support and were standing candidates in all four home countries, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, unlike the likes of other minor parties like the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP, etc. it is worth considering that both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party do not put up their own candidates in Northern Ireland, the Conservatives defer to affiliates, as do UKIP, so any suggestion by the BBC that UKIP lacked national legitimacy as a major party is entirely wrong. It is also worth pointing out that both Scottish Labour and the Scottish Green Party are by definition regional groupings, so once again the corporation's basic argument that UKIP failed to reach the guidelines for what does, or doesn't constitute a major party is both wrong and misleading.
Clearly, crying over spilt electoral milk serves no real purpose, other than to highlight both the inadequacies and the inequalities that our current electoral system produces, not least when the more malign and influential elements of the Fourth Estate decide to take a hand in shaping the outcomes. In addition to the malignant effect of the privately owned press and the publicly owned media, it is also perhaps mentioning the role of the often privately owned polling companies whose pronouncements on the state of the two major parties were thought to have contributed to the eventual result, although whether this was by accident or design, people have to figure out for themselves?
Even though I have little more than my own experience, research and natural cynicism to guide me, I tend to take the view that opinion polls are designed to influence, rather than to guide, or inform; and on that basis they should play no part in any election campaign, let alone one that will determine who gets to run other people's lives. Although some studies suggest that only 3-4% of voters are actually influenced by opinion polls, common sense and logic would seem to suggest that very few people are going to willingly admit that they've allowed an anonymous poll to actively sway their choice of candidate, implying that those who are directly influenced by polling is far, far higher than these few studies would indicate. After all, who is going to publicly admit that they're incapable of choosing a candidate on the strength of his character, or his arguments, rather than relying on a polling company to make up their minds for them? Aside from the fact that everybody loves a winner, just how many voters are actively discouraged from casting their ballots for their favoured candidate, if and when a polling company announces that they've got no chance of winning? And then we wonder why so many people can't be bothered to vote?