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Broadsheets to 'propaganda sheets': Why are the UK papers shouting louder and louder?

The bias is more obvious than ever, so what is driving it?

eu-referendum The UK newspapers the day after the Brexit vote. Source: PA Images

CAST YOUR MIND back over the news of the past three-and-a half years since Brexit. 

It’s been a deluge if information, endless talking heads and quite frequently very little actual progress.  

The ubiquity of British politics across the news has reached a level perhaps never before seen in living memory, but amongst all that it’s often difficult to pick out many standout moments. 

Sometimes a picture, or indeed a collection of them, can tell a thousand words. 

On TheJournal.ie, one of the most common features we do as a snapshot is a roundup of what the UK front pages have to say.

It’s a feature that’s not unique to this website and, crucially, UK broadcasters like Sky News and the BBC take their cue by what the papers have to say. 

Most often though, what a collection of the front pages tends to show is a clear distillation of the editorial viewpoint of the paper.

The same story covered across several newspapers can be, and often is, radically different. It perhaps tells the reader more about the paper itself than the story it’s supposed to be covering.

There are almost too many obviously examples of this to choose but one such is a day in August when the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson went to Brussels to talk Brexit with Emmanuel Macron. 

While Macron was open to the idea of finding a new solution, he was clear that the backstop must still be part of any plan.

The following day several papers like The Independent and the The Guardian reported that the backstop was going nowhere while The Telegraph used a rather misleading photo of Johnson with his foot on the table ‘demanding a fresh border plan’. 

The Daily Express went with an image of Johnson with his arms aloft, labelling it a ‘Victory Salute’. The Times, typically, was somewhere in between. 

In the end, the deal that was eventually hammered out did see the backstop ‘replaced’.

Different papers providing a different slant on the same news is obviously nothing new but in recent years has it become more obvious? 

Journalist and media commentator Roy Greenslade believes it has.

“I don’t think they even make any attempt to hide it now,” he says.

“They’re very aware that they’re preaching to a certain audience and they are going to fulfil what they believe to be the desires of that audience. This is not really up for discussion any longer, it’s not a case of balance today and then an election will happen and ‘guess what we’re urging you to vote Labour’. You know right from the beginning, they’re like propaganda sheets now.”

Four weeks out from the election and there have already been some startling examples of newspapers slavishly acting as an organ for one or other of the two main parties.

The Conservative manifesto was literally launched in the Daily Telegraph with a controversial front page that saw Johnson compare Corbyn to Stalin, plastering the ahistorical barb across half the front page. 

While the majority of the UK press leans heavily towards the Tory party, it isn’t completely one way traffic. Jeremy Corbyn has on several occasions shared the front page of the Daily Mirror such is its favourable reporting of Labour policies. 

On Wednesday, for example, the paper reported on Labour’s ‘plan to save the NHS’, A key issue in this year’s election

But with such bombastic headlines, why have papers been ramping it up so much during the election campaign? Greenslade suggests it could be down to their declining readerships. 

“This is this is almost a last hurrah,” he says. 

If you think about what circulations are this moment and think there won’t be an election for five more years, and if you were to do a graph showing a consistent fall in circulation over the five-year period, allied to the previous five years, you’d realise that some of these papers won’t be in existence in five years time. Or at least they will be so minimal in their circulation as to be irrelevant. 

“It’s a case of, ‘really look, we’re going down fighting. We’re going to act like we’ve always acted, but we’re going to do it in an intense level’.”

crush

When it comes to intensity, the Daily Mail’s Crush The Saboteurs font page on the day Theresa May called a snap general election is perhaps the most memorable of recent years.

Another typical Daily Mail splash in the fetish for over-the-top front pages was the infamous and controversial Enemies of the People headline in 2016 . That one came after British High Court judges had ruled that parliament could dictate the Brexit process. 

Each time these front pages were released the online reaction was fierce.

If you’re a newshound who uses Twitter you’ll know that at about 10pm each night the front pages of the UK papers start trickling into news feeds, prompting an instantaneous reaction.   

A team of BBC journalists that tweet the front pages under the hashtag #tomorrowspaperstoday often take much of the flak for simply sharing images of newspapers they have nothing to do with. 

Desk editor Neil Henderson recently spoke out about the service and the abuse he and his colleagues have often faced for providing it. He also spoke about its popularity, noting that his tweets can receive up to 15 million impressions a month.

gibraltar-stock A shop selling the UK papers in Gibraltar. Source: Ben Birchall/PA Images

With such an undeniable fascination with what newspapers are saying on their front page despite an era of declining circulation, could it be that newspapers are making their front pages extra-wild to stay relevant?

Greenslade says he feels that would be stretching the case a little, instead arguing it’s more about making broadcasters happy.

“No, I think to be honest those front pages are important in terms of how broadcasters react. So it’s always been the case that broadcasters have lived off newspapers, but here you are with newspapers taking a definite point of view and broadcasters are feeding off that.

Every night BBC News 24 and Sky News do these paper roundups and they’re very much concentrated on the main stories on the front pages. And they are feeding into that media obsession, media narcissism, which means that it takes off on social media and takes off with broadcasters immediately afterwards. 

Greenslade adds that the format of these nightly paper reviews is often adversarial and sees journalists taking opposing points-of-view for the sake of so-called entertainment. 

This in turn then feeds into how the newspapers form their headlines to make sure they feature prominently on air.

It’s sort of a cycle that Greenslade says is indicative of the horrible but necessary phrase of “the totality of the media”.

“There’s huge reciprocal relationship between newspapers and broadcasters, and between newspapers and social media and broadcasters and social media, and this whole swirl goes on, feeding off each other, commenting on each other, wondering what each other is doing.”

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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