Hero and villain: the media’s role in identity management

The role played by news media in the identity management of politicians as a means to control the public’s perceptions of those key individuals was a significant feature in the run up to the 2019 election. The UK’s press is heavily influenced by right-wing, neo-liberal ideologues and as such their representation of society, through their construction of an individual’s identity, reflects their interests and objectives which in turn impacts on the attitudes of large swathes of the population. During the election campaign, members of the in-group, those supportive of the status quo, were made to appear normal and likeable, reducing the figurative distance between them and the electorate, whereas the out-group, the left and the liberals, irrational and untrustworthy.

In an age of mistrust and the public’s thirst for greater democratic representation, our political system has been infiltrated by politicians claiming to be more representative of the public and an alternative to the establishment. Take for example the Brexit Party leader, Nigel Farage, who has been positioned as an everyday pint drinking, fag smoking British bloke willing to take on the elite. Alongside his anti-elite message, via the battle cry of the Brexit party, privately educated Farage positioned himself as representative of the British public. Much like his multi-billionaire friend Donald or The Donald, stirring things up on the other side of the pond, this image, propagated by the media, has resonated with a public desperate for change.

Unsurprisingly, this unscrupulous tactic of appearing normal and empathetic to the public’s concerns, extends to more mainstream politicians who recognise the significant role personae plays in gaining power and influence. So, with their well-paid brand managers in tow they cultivate a public image which sells. The darling of the right-wing press, Boris Johnson (BJ), was rarely out of the spotlight throughout the election with significant attention placed on his buffoonery and off the cuff remarks. In ordinary circumstances, his quips about ethnic minority groups, his deceptive mis-information – the construction claim for 40 new hospitals that turned out to be only six, as an example – may have been perceived as detrimental to a Prime Ministerial candidate, yet, the media were able to manipulate this persona into something positive. In contrast to the immaculately constructed identities of past leaders such as Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, seen as representative of the establishment, BJ was presented as a person willing and honest enough to express his true self, differentiating him from those within the perceived elite.

The portrayal of ordinariness is even more surprising given the fact that, Eton educated, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is as establishment as they come, and yet this normal identity, in its various guises, was pervasive across the media. In particular, the use of Boris or the affectionate Bojo were ubiquitous within both left- and right-wing publications. For instance, a Google search for the term Boris generates 384 million results directly relevant to BJ demonstrating the almost brand like association his first name carries. Conversely, other politicians were rarely attributed the same level of informality, maintaining the distance between them and the electorate, while at the same time positioning BJ as somebody familiar and trustworthy.

Amazingly, in spite of a decade of callous austerity at the hands of the Tories, where public spending cuts have been rife, impacting on the living standards of the poorest, and resulting in over a million food banks users, the only person regularly cast as the villain was BJ’s opponent, Jeremy Corbyn (JC), hailed as a threat to the UK’s economy and security. Despite a history of peaceful protest, anti-war sentiment and much needed public spending proposals, JC was vilified in the media as an anti-Semite, communist, IRA supporter and a terrorist sympathiser. In other words, in contrast to the haphazard, mischief maker BJ, JC was attributed the worst possible traits of any potential leader: a racist, anti-patriotic, anti-democratic, dangerous loon. Indeed, rather than celebrating his desire for multi-lateral nuclear disarmament, his entirely hypothetical reluctance to launch nuclear weapons on another nation and progressive policies that attempted to wrestle control from the elite, JC was cast as the enemy of the state, unable to defend the nation and keep it secure.

Evidently, the public persona of politicians can mean the difference between success and failure, irrespective of policies or previous actions. In the case of the 2019 election, the media went into overdrive with the continuous identity manipulation of the two main protagonists, transforming BJ’s negatives into positives and redefining JC’s character from a resilient, forth right politician, determined to impact positive change, into a feeble-minded, communist unable to govern the country. That said, a multitude of factors contributed to a Tory victory, not least Brexit, though, to use a music analogy, their lyrics were predictable, but with a tireless marketing team and a charismatic front man at the helm their success was never in doubt, even for the most optimistic of Labour supporters.