When the readers’ pen is just another sword

A wealth of data dissecting the coverage of the electoral campaign has punctuated the run-up to the election. The weekly reports released by Cardiff UniversityLoughborough University and the Media Standards Trust have consistently documented the centrality of party leaders, the focus on strategy over policy, and the overreliance on polls (together with the related debate around the possible coalition deals around the election) that have dominated the coverage.

These findings somehow indicate the subsidiary part played by citizens in the coverage, particularly in a moment in the political cycle when citizens should arguably play a central role. The role played by social media in the campaign hasgenerated some media attention, although the coverage focussed more on how parties used these tools, and on ‘best social media bits’. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, in three different posts for The Conversation, analysed how citizens were represented in the news (mainly through voxpops), the energising potential of #Milifandom, and the powerful role played by citizens in the special edition of Question Time.

Consistent with the partisanship and the negativism of the newspaper coverage, the published letters constituted yet another bastion urging readers to support the very party endorsed by each newspaper.

But citizens were also represented in letters to the editor. Although scholars have previously discussed whether this genre can be considered a forum for public debate, it could be expected for letters to the editor to constitute a platform for citizens to advance debates and engage in the discussion of electoral policies and proposals put forward by parties. A systematic analysis of the letters to the editor published in British national newspapers in the run-up to the election, however, shows a rather different picture. Consistent with the partisanship and the negativism of the newspaper coverage, the published letters constituted yet another bastion urging readers to support the very party endorsed by each newspaper. This was done through the publication of letters explicitly asking for the vote, advocating for tactical voting, ridiculing and vilifying candidates and opposing some of their policies too. Instead of the homogeneous discourse put forward by most newspapers, a slightly more diverse range of political options could be found in the letters published by The Independent and The Guardian (including explicit opposition to The Independent’s endorsement of the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition government). Newspapers published letters by prominent political figures David Blunkett (The Sun, 4th May), Caroline Lucas, or Nigel Farage (The Times, 6th May). This effectively reduces the only newspaper space reserved for citizens to proactively express their political aims and aspirations.

Letters published in The Guardian and The Independent after the 8th May tried to find an explanation to the results obtained by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In contrast, the policy debate intensified after the election in the letters to the editor published in the newspapers that had endorsed the Conservative party. In addition to the numerous letters celebrating the Conservative victory, there was a plethora of letters trying to influence the agenda of the newly elected government. The main proposals included negotiating with Brussels so that a referendum on the British membership to the EU could be held before 2017; reforming the constitution (so that only English MPs can vote on English laws), and reforming the electoral system (so that the anomalies generated by the first past the post system could be corrected).

It is to a certain extent revealing that newspapers showing such a monolithic support for the winning party (including stories and tools promoting tactical voting in their coverage), and exercising such a degree of editorial control in the selection of reader contributions during the campaign, started publishing letters to the editor pushing some policies eminently championed by UKIP during the campaign as soon as the Conservative victory was confirmed. One wonders what prevented these newspapers from using letters to the editor during the campaign as a means of advancing the debate around the policies that any government should develop after the election: What was the risk? Why did they wish to limit the exposure of their readers to a wider range of ideas and policy proposals?

Whilst some respected commentators argue that the market somehow regulates the partisan nature of newspaper coverage, my analysis shows an imbalance between the editorial logics followed by The Guardian and The Independent and the editorial strategies of other national newspapers, at least when it comes to letters to the editor. On the one hand we have something resembling a marketplace of ideas. On the other, an attempt to restrict supply with the aim to dominate the market.