BBC coverage swings to Tories as Budget coverage suggests growing anti-Labour bias

Last month's Budget could be another nail in the coffin for Labour judging from media coverage, in particular by bbc.co.uk. We analyse how online media portrayed the different parties when covering last month’s Budget.

A recent media audit commissioned by PRmoment looking at Budget coverage by bbc.co.uk, Skynews.com and Order-Order.com showed that although consistently most of the coverage (70 per cent) focused on the Labour Party, there was a marked difference in how much more negative BBC was about Labour than Conservatives compared with the other two sites. At the BBC site 47 per cent of Labour coverage was negative, compared with just 18 per cent of Conservative coverage. Although Skynews.com had nothing good to say about the Labour party, its coverage was a fairer 71 per cent neutral, while Order-Order.com found good things to report in 12 per cent of its Labour news, and negative reporting comprised 33 per cent of its coverage. Order-Order was also by far the most negative about the Conservatives, having absolutely no positive reporting (compared with 25 per cent positive coverage by Skynews.com, and 9 per cent at bbc.co.uk), and 44 per cent of negative news (compared with just 18 per cent by the BBC, and 20 per cent by Skynews.com).

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Order-Order was also completely dismissive of Liberals, not mentioning them at all, while BBC mentioned them a considerable 12 per cent and Skynews.com 3 per cent. It is worth noting that any bias seems to fly out of the window when covering the Liberals, as all coverage was neutral.

The tone of BBC and Sky coverage was rather more traditional and wordy than Order-Order. For example in their use of clichés: Order-Order likened the Budget to being forced to eat a “shit sandwich”, whilst BBC used the term “shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic” and Sky simply called the way the Labour Party is controlling the economy as an “utter mess”.

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This coverage reflects the view that the media is predicting the result of next year’s election. Michael Brown, political columnist for The Independent and former Conservative MP says “Personally, I think the media is unwittingly preparing for the inevitability of a change of government. This does remind me of the situation in the media towards the dying days of the Major Government 12 to 13 years ago.” Brown does not believe that there is bias in the media so much as Labour being the author of its own misfortunes, for example, with Labour commentators including John Rentoil, Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley giving Gordon Brown a hard time.

Dirk Paterson, head of communications and public affairs, at trade association APCIMS gives his personal opinion that there is now a “palpable” feeling that the show is over for Labour and that the media war is lost. He says: “Whilst all the mainstream news channels run devastatingly cringy clips of Gordon Brown from U-Tube they give the leadership of the big debates to Cameron. Brown is being portrayed even by the biggest names in the ‘non biased media’ with a sense of incredulity. Whenever he makes a statement, the media unhelpfully backdrop it with a context of unfaithful backbencher and drops in the polls.

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“Gone are the images of Dave on the bike with the cars carrying his papers, long gone are the ‘hug-a –hoodie’ references. No, the Conservative leader is always photographed at his best, behind the podium, on his best side.”

With the media arguably swaying towards the Conservatives, this leaves the problem for Labour PR people of how to get positive Labour messages across. Brown believes that it is a hard job for Labour PR people now, as: “They probably don't have a clue what the message is. It is certainly the case that the world of PR – which has no political allegiance – always wants to be (understandably) on the winning side and wants to convince their clients that they are well connected with the likely winners of the next election.”

It could be argued that the government in power always gets a raw deal from the media, but Brown believes that this is not always the case. He points out that in 2001 and 2005 New Labour got a mostly free ride from the media –as did the Tories in 1992. He adds: “The media simply goes with the winner. We'll know when the game is really up when Rupert Murdoch pronounces. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister I asked a friend of mine who worked for The Sun what it would support at the next election. He replied "the winner" but he didn't then know whether it would be Brown or Cameron. I think that sums it all up.”

However, Paterson thinks that the media has already made up its mind “The media know which side their bread is buttered on and they are treating Cameron with the respect the polls are giving him – that of the incoming prime minister. And as they treat him like the PM so the snowball of success gathers momentum, he sounds more like it, the polls reflect it and they give him even more profile.

“I think its interesting that no-one has commented much on the nature of the Telegraph’s expenses revelations. They start with the front bench of the Labour Party, the horror of the two TVs, the cleaner, the replacement windows. They reveal more and more and on day five (when we’re all bored) they bring out a few back bench Tories for their much juicier confessions of swimming pools and tennis courts. By that time the Cameron team have known for five days that their time is coming, gauged the public mood, prepared the statement, calculated the sacrifice, warned their party offenders, stage managed the media and taken hold of the agenda. Of course they would, wouldn’t they? The point is the media have let them.”

Methodology PRmoment asked Echo Sonar to conduct a media audit of Budget coverage from 22nd to 25th April. The objective was to analyse media coverage surrounding the 2009 Budget in relation to the three leading political parties. The media analysed by Echo Sonar was bbc.co.uk, Skynews.com and Order-Order.com, with metrics including share of voice, total volumes of coverage and assessment of tone of coverage.


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