• Development Intelligence

The disconnect: media opinion versus public opinion

One of the defining features of this political era seems to be the complete and utter disconnect between media opinion and public opinion. An esteemed DI client recently said to our chairman: “I listened to what you kept saying during the General Election but it was a very different story to what I was hearing on Twitter where things seemed to be much closer”. Now the moral of this story could be ‘always listen to DI’s chairman’, and he’d of course like that, but the truth is there is something much more significant at work here.

We are seeing this disconnect right now with Coronavirus. The media keeps firing daily salvos at Boris’ Government – on its lack of preparedness, its change of Covid-19 strategy in March, the endless PPE crisis, the slowness of the testing programme, now the alleged messaging confusion over the ‘unlock’ strategy etc – yet the polls shows Boris and the Government throughout the crisis with soaring popularity. It’s as if the public either don’t read/listen to the media, just ignore what it says, or listens and decides the media is just plain wrong and does the exact opposite.

We saw this same phenomenon during the Brexit saga. There was a clear reality gap between what the media assumed and what public opinion delivered. The media complacently assumed that the public would just vote Remain. And were then roundly shocked when they didn’t! (Truthfully, many journalists are still in one of the early phases of Brexit grief and are not yet anywhere near to ‘acceptance’).

And on and on this went throughout the Brexit process. Boris rode into Downing Street last summer with the media still in disbelief. And then he concluded the Brexit deal which the media told us was impossible. And then Boris won the General Election with a massive victory and, despite the polling showing throughout the campaign that this was going to happen (and Dom Cummings even pointing the media in the right direction at the start of the campaign by suggesting they left Westminster and talked to some ‘real people’) the media were once again surprised by the margin of victory.

So why does this disconnect exist? And how are we to read events if the media is no guide to public opinion?

Some facts…

Let’s start with a few facts from Ofcom’s most recent annual research:

  • TV remains the most used platform for news (at 75%) followed by the internet (66%), print media (49%) and radio (43%).

  • The top three news sources for the UK population are BBC One (58%), ITV (40%) then Facebook (35%).

  • 49% of Brits now use social media for news.

  • Please note: only 16% use Twitter for news.

The great news/political myth…

And also let’s debunk one of the great myths: if one speaks to the average Lefty they say the media has a terrible ‘right of centre’ bias, viz the Sun, Mail, Express, Torygraph, Sky etc. But if one speaks to the average Righty, they say the media is woefully ‘left of centre’, viz the Mirror, Times, Guardian, BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Facebook, Twitter etc.

The truth is once again to be found in Ofcom’s data. This so called ‘left of centre’ bias has a significant margin once one takes into account actual ‘audience reach’:

The disconnect explained

But the real reason the public keep confounding journalists might stem from a piece of research collated some years ago when this ‘disconnect’ phenomenon really began to take off, by Bill Clinton’s favourite pollster, Mark Penn. In his book Microtrends he picked out a polling trend he calls ‘impressionable elites’.

This is the term Penn uses for university educated, affluent people who focus more on personality than issues when it comes to evaluating political decisions. His research shows that those at the top end of the socio-economic population (ABC1s) are heavily swayed by gut and impression, not numbers and facts. They vote more on the basis of personality in campaigns, they buy products more on the basis of brands and they invest more on the basis of a tip than on sound investment logic.

Conversely, rational and informed voting behaviour is more widespread across the now much better educated working class (C2DEs). His logic for this is that those at the top of our society really have never had it so good. They may moan, and may now have less disposable income than in January, but there is food on their shelves and petrol in their cars’ tanks. In short, they aren’t struggling. Thus they have the time and space to be able to be interested in what colour tie the candidate is wearing or what his/her last Tweet said.

Meanwhile, those at the bottom of the pile are still desperately trying to build a better life. They could not give a fig about the candidate’s tie colour or their last Tweet. They just want to know how their policies will help them get richer.

So, back to the beginning of this post. Why are journalists and the public at large so disconnected? Well, of course, all journalists come from the ‘impressionable elites’ whereas the overwhelming majority of the electorate does not.

So how to read media comment?

Basically, just accept it’s mostly wrong. The media have to feed their 365/24/7 news cycle, constantly requiring a new lead story on the hour, every hour. Much of what they produce is just nonsense. The lack of ‘profundity from the punditry’ is at times gobsmacking.

Please, dear DI friends, take little notice. Dom Cummings “real people”, aka the voting public, already aren’t.