Wednesday, February 21

Parties hide away senior off-message politicians



The presidential nature of a campaign dominated by the leaders of the two largest parties has been illuminated by research that also reveals how Labour and the Conservatives have hidden away senior figures deemed to be embarrassing or off message.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn appeared in 31.7% and 26.9% of media coverage analysed by researchers, while the third most prominent figure to feature was the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell.

The research suggests a huge focus across the media on a small number of leading figures, with the top 10 on the list accounting for 93% of total coverage.

By contrast, the campaign’s “invisible” men and women – who were relegated to taking selfies on the election trail or rallying constituency parties – include cabinet ministers and senior Labour frontbenchers such as the international trade secretary, Liz Truss, the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, and, following his comments about the Grenfell tragedy, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

An irony of an election that has been largely about Brexit has also been the near invisibility of the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay, and the relative absence of his Labour shadow, Keir Starmer.

The rankings were calculated by researchers at Loughborough University, who analysed election-related items in the press and TV between Monday and Friday over four weeks.

Among figures who were more visible than might have been expected – though still with just 1.6% and 0.9% respectively – were Ian Austin and John Woodcock, the former Labour MPs who are backing Boris Johnson, who were the joint 11th and 16th most prominent figure in media coverage. The former prime minister Tony Blair was the 24th most prominent, well ahead of frontline senior politicians and his fellow former prime ministers.

David Deacon, professor of communication and media analysis at Loughborough University, said: “When you add up all appearances of politicians from all parties in election coverage, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn account for a third of that total.”

However, he added that levels of “presidentialisation” were broadly in line with the 2017 campaign.

“Jo Swinson and Nicola Sturgeon’s positions in the upper regions of the table have been largely secured through the foothold they have established in TV news,” he said. “In the press, they have been squeezed to the very margins.”

He also said that that “insurgents and renegades” with a primarily anti-Labour message – such as Nigel Farage, Ian Austin and John Woodcock – gained more prominence than disillusioned and dispossessed ex-Conservatives like David Gauke, Dominic Grieve and Michael Heseltine.

The most striking absentees from broadcast coverage typically represent some aspect of their parties that election strategists have decided they would rather not emphasise – or, as in Rees-Mogg’s case, compounded that problem with an unforced error.


Jacob Rees-Mogg

From being a near-perennial fixture of political coverage in 2019, Rees-Mogg vanished from the airwaves following uproar over his comments about the Grenfell tragedy.

His presence among the top 20 most prominent campaigners in the press and TV in the campaign’s first week was largely a result of coverage of the Grenfell issue – and by the second week he had disappeared.

Instead, a series of pictures on the politician’s Twitter account suggests that he has been instructed to largely restrict himself to his safe seat of North East Somerset.

Steve Barclay

Virtually absent from major set-piece media slots, the Brexit secretary’s name has instead tended to be mentioned when journalists have challenged Boris Johnson’s claims about his Brexit deal.

Most recently, the prime minister told Sky News that Barclay and others had been “wrong” to say goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would face checks as a result of the deal.

While Barclay has stumbled over the details of the deal in the past, his northern roots and credentials as an MP who previously had a “real job” might otherwise have marked him out as a campaign asset.

Priti Patel

From introducing Boris Johnson at his first campaign rally on 6 November, the home secretary has remained relatively prominent in terms of her press and TV appearances despite other cabinet ministers being chosen for major set-piece debates.

Moments have included appearing alongside Boris Johnson on London bridge in the wake of the terror attack. But while Patel’s credentials on law and order and Brexit dovetail with central themes of the Tory election campaign, she might be regarded as a turn-off for floating voters which the party are hoping to pick off.

She just about crept into a table of the top 20 most prominent individuals in press and TV reporting of the first week of the formal campaign and then made the top 10 as a result of coverage of her party’s plans for immigration policy, according to Loughborough University research. She was the seventh and eighth most prominent campaigner in weeks three and four.


Keir Starmer

While he has not quite been as absent from the campaign as the Brexit secretary he shadows, Starmer is one of a number of remain-supporting Labour frontbenchers shunted to the back as figures with more ambiguous positions on Brexit have been to the fore on the media merry go round.

He was number 17 in a list of the 20 most prominent individuals in the reporting of the first week of the formal campaign but completely dropped out of the top 20 for the following three weeks.

Emily Thornberry

Arguably the most vocal and prominent voice for remain on the Labour frontbench, Thornberry is another would-be Labour leadership contender who appears to have been kept away from the key media slots as the party leadership attempts to keep leave-supporting voters onside.

From being the 18th most prominent figure in the first week of the campaign, she slipped out of that ranking for weeks two and three.

Clive Lewis

An active figure on social media and an energetic campaigner who is sometimes regarded as a potential leadership contender, Lewis had virtually no media profile in the rankings of Loughborough University’s 150 most prominent figures.

His very support for a second referendum and for remaining in the EU, may have been a factor in his lack of utilisation by the party leadership for prominent media slots.