Newspapers and Matchsticks

July 5, 2012

Lord Ashcroft, the gentleman who owns the Conservative Party, has commissioned a poll on the attitudes of people who read newspapers towards those newspapers. He looked to find out whether people were able to identify the political allegiance of their favoured newspaper. The results are fascinating, and I repeat them below:

Here is proof, if proof were needed, that 18% of the Telegraph’s readership are bonkers. However, what’s more interesting is how Lord Ashcroft presents these results.

Lord Ashcroft chooses to interpret this as evidence that newspapers do not lead opinion, but rather follow that of their readers. He claims this on the basis that if they led opinion, more people should recognise that they act as such:

“Part of the genius of successful newspapers is that they understand their readers and give them what they want. They don’t determine their readers’ political outlook, they follow it. […] But the view that the tabloid editor is a kind of Chief Whip, corralling the votes of biddable readers in support of the paper’s chosen victor, is patronising and wrong.”

The claim here is that it is only possible to lead opinion if people recognise what it is that you’re trying to do. This is an interesting claim, because it is the exact opposite of the approach that Thatcher took to leading opinion:

The Attitude Change Process

5.2.1 The traditional model of political communications resembles a military bombardment, in which you bomb your audience into agreeing with you, shouting louder when they appear not to understand.

5.2.2 The model we have suggested in earlier papers is quite different. It is based on the private perception of reality by the individual. The analogy we used was the building of a model of, say, St Paul’s, out of matchsticks. The structure would gradually take shape, but only when most of the matchsticks were in place would the observer suddenly realise the meaning of the model. At that point his attitude would start to change.

5.2.3 Each nugget of information that reaches him (a speech, two seconds on TV of the Grunwick pickets, an article, the report of a new wage claim, the plight of the Boat People) may only be one matchstick. This is why major speeches which take a great deal of effort to prepare are often not particularly cost-effective in communication terms. Their “yield” is usually only one or two matchsticks, in a few column inches. And of course they are discounted to some extent as propaganda, which live events – eg Grunwick, NUPE – are not.

5.2.4 Since in the nature of things we will seldom get everything right, it is a matter of making sure we take two or three steps forward for each step back. Of course there will be occasionally a rapid succession of matchsticks – as, for example, the events of last winter which altered the “mental sets”, at least temporarily, of a significant proportion of the electorate. But whenever we get something wrong, a matchstick will be removed from the model.

5.2.5 The important thing to recognise is that the process requires many matchsticks and lots of time – usually years rather than months.

It was quite clearly the position of the Conservative Party for many years that a drip-drip-drip effect of communication changes attitudes, rather than the marshalling of forces on election day. Tabloids do not need to be overtly political in order to fulfil a role useful to a political agenda – in fact, being overtly political would diminish their value as a source of matchsticks. Given the role Lord Ashcroft has played in developing Conservative strategy it is difficult to believe that he is not aware of this, which would make his claims above rather disingenuous.

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