Democracy needs an outspoken, challenging & uncensored press

Our national newsbrands are committed to lively, intense and engaged political debate, which is more important than ever at election time, writes Newsworks' Vanessa Clifford for Campaign

Since Theresa May’s election bombshell, there have been two stories dominating media news – the "will she/won't she" TV debate saga and speculation (particularly in the trade press) about how badly-behaved newspapers could be over the course of the campaign.

Amongst condemnation of political biases and impassioned headlines, as well as questions over newspapers' influence, it's hard to ignore the edge of ever-present irony. If newspapers are irrelevant to readers, then why are they still occupying so much airtime? Why bother taking them to task over their self-declared biases if they hold no weight anyway?

The fact is that newspapers come into their own at times like this. In this country, we're lucky enough to have over 20 national titles, reaching 47 million people with a spread of political views and voices. It’s this unbridled range of opinions which defines newsbrands and sets them apart from broadcasters like the BBC.

Democracy is an outspoken, challenging and uncensored press. You're never going to agree with everything that is written, far from it, but that’s the whole point. Interestingly, it's the titles that most often infuriate the liberal media elite which are consistently most read in the UK.

But whether you're a paid up Guardian member or a die-hard Mail devotee, there should be one thing you can agree on (several actually, but more on that later) – newspapers are indispensable at election time. Why? Precisely because they are not balanced or bland, on the one hand, or downright cynical or mischievous on the other, as tends to be the case where the more exotic, fake-news-infested reaches of the internet are concerned.

The figures back up this role. Recent Newsworks research, conducted in conjunction with Tapestry and focused on 1,000 adults, found that 55% of people learn about politics from newspapers (compared with 19% citing social media). Even 18-24s are more likely to cite newspapers (43%) than social media (41%) as a place where they find out about politics.

I put this down to the fact that our national press are absolutely committed to lively, intense and engaged political debate. What's more, readers understand and value this purpose.

When it comes to election campaigns, we so often get caught up in quantifying newspapers' influence on the electorate, rolling out The Sun's infamous 1992 headline in a variety of guises. This mind-set presumes an old-fashioned, one-sided dichotomy where the press is dictating to the masses. As ever, things just aren’t as linear as that.

In reality, our research shows that people gravitate towards titles which hold similar values to them and rely on them to help navigate a wide range of topics, from politics to pop culture. In fact newspapers emerged as the strongest indicator of how people defined themselves, over age and social class.

Yet there is a difference between drawing on newspapers to help build an understanding of an issue and unquestioningly accepting everything that is written. Reading the opinions of others helps galvanise what we do and don't agree with. It's a relationship built on discourse rather than dictation.

On a broader level (here comes the 'later'), just as the relationships between newspapers and readers are more complex than often presumed, so are the readers themselves. While it's easy and sometimes very necessary to lump people together into clearly defined groups, it can blind us to cross-overs and correlations.

A Conservative voting, Telegraph buying Brexiteer and Corbyn loving, Camden dwelling Metro reader may share little in common on paper, but look closer. By examining what divides and what unites them, shared believes and values can emerge.

In these politically charged times, it can be tempting to take a linear view both of people and the press – in vs out, left vs right, right vs wrong – but this negates the complexities and contradictions that come with democracy. This is what our press embodies. Without it, we lose the texture and authenticity of politics.

So, here we go again? Absolutely.

A version of this piece was first published by Campaign

You're never going to agree with everything that is written, far from it, but that’s the whole point

Vanessa Clifford, CEO, Newsworks
by Vanessa Clifford 10/05/17

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