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A New Party and a New Leader:
A Study of the British Press Presentation of the Labour Party and Tony Blair in the Election Campaign of 1997

This article by Anna Kosz is based on her MA thesis from Professor Irmina Wawrzyczek's Seminar in Cultural Studies at the Uniwersytet Marii Curie-Skeodowskiej. The article will also appear in a forthcoming publication, a collection of MA papers, entitled Studying "New" Britain: Popular Culture and Ideology, and edited by Professor Wawrzyczek and Dr. Zbigniew Mazur.

Introduction

            The aim of my project is to show how two British national newspapers, The Times and The Independent participated in the construction of a new image of the Labour Party and its leader Tony Blair in the period preceding the general election of 1997. I intend to describe the effect achieved by a skilful combination of the visual and textual techniques and strategies employed by both newspapers in order to influence the British electorate in favour of the Labour Party.  As newspapers are products of popular culture, their critical analysis will ultimately lead to conclusions about the role of the Press in general in shaping British political culture.

The Times came into being in 1785 as an independent daily newspaper, politically right of centre. In 1981 it was bought by News International Company, owned by the Australian-born press tycoon Rupert Murdoch. His purchase marked the beginning of a shift in the paper’s political stance from the centre towards a more right-wing position. On the surface, The Times disguises its political opinions and its journalists never use we or us with reference to any party. Typically, its leading slogan in the coverage of the election campaign of 1997 was ‘Principle not party.’ Rather than openly support the Conservative Party, “it advised readers to vote for Eurosceptic candidates, most of whom were Conservative, although a few were Labour and Liberal Democrat dissidents.”[1]

            The Independent was established in 1986 as a politically independent newspaper owned by the International Newspaper Publishing Group. It seized the centre ground vacated by The Times after its swing to the right. The Independent’s outlook is politically autonomous, slightly right of centre in economic matters and slightly left of centre in social concerns. Faithful to its title, The Independent did not back any particular party in its coverage of the election campaign. As described by Butler and Kavanagh, “it balanced criticism and praise of all major parties and its leaders, columns offered refreshing and original perspectives on the campaign.”[2] Although these two newspapers claim to be politically independent, they nevertheless participated in the creation of a new and more favourable image of the Labour Party and its leader Tony Blair while reporting the election news in a seemingly neutral way.

The research material for the analysis comes from 104 issues of The Times and The Independent published between March and May Day 1997, the day of the general election. In addition to newspaper texts, two of Labour’s election manifestos from 1992 and 1997 will also be employed to demonstrate how the new programme of the party was evolving.

The methods applied in the analysis of the collected material come from various disciplines since cultural and media studies have always been interdisciplinary. An attempt has been made to examine both the verbal and the visual side of the research material by employing discourse analysis, content analysis and semiotic interpretation. As explained by Graeme Turner, semiotics “allows us to examine the cultural specificity of representations and their meanings by using one set of methods and terms across the full range of signifying practices.”[3] Hence it can be also used productively for researching the press. Discourse analysis, understood as interpretation of “socially produced groups of ideas or ways of thinking that can be tracked in individual texts or groups of texts and demand to be located within wider historical or social structures or relations,”[4] seems particularly appropriate for the study of newspaper articles aiming at revealing prevailing topics, schematic forms, style and rhetoric. Much of the gathered evidence comes from language analysis, performed with the help of the linguistic concepts and procedures of critical linguistics defined and practically applied by Roger Fowler in Language in the News.[5] Content analysis, “designed to produce an objective, measurable, verifiable account of the manifest content of message,”[6] and particularly productive in media analysis, was used here for the quantitative presentation of evidence.

            Four dominant press strategies of constructing a new image of the Labour Party and Tony Blair were identified in the analysed texts: contest of candidates, celebrity endorsement, unmasking Tories' negative campaigning and switchers' acknowledgement. These techniques proved to be effective in attracting the voters' attention since their combative flavour broke the monotony of politics and made it more entertaining to the reader. They provided a framework for giving attractive insight into the candidates' private lives and thus facilitated the reader's identification with distant political figures.

 

1. Contest of candidates

           

A very effective strategy of projecting a favourable image of the Labour Party and Tony Blair was the contest of candidates, i.e. contrasting the leaders of the two main British political parties. This form of competition was developed and is now used especially in the United States, where “the parties use their leaders as vehicles to project the party as a whole”[7] and where “the personal image of politicians, the set of characteristics associated with them in the public mind – is a central element of electioneering.”[8] Recently also in Britain a number of surveys indicate that “most voters’ comments on the party leaders are concerned more with their personal qualities – than with their policies.”[9] This is because few voters study the political programmes of the parties, even during the election campaigns, but many have a lot of opportunities to see the leading political figures thanks to the media coverage. Besides, people show a general tendency to judge others by various physical attributes, such as posture, gestures, clothes, hairstyle, accessories, and so on. Consequently, politicians are often ascribed such important qualities as competence, authority, strength, dynamism, and compassion mainly on the basis of how they look. Thus, this way of political marketing based on the image promotion helps to attract voters’ attention and improve the chances of one’s own candidate, while depreciating other contestants at the same time. Tony Blair was presented in the analysed material as a young, energetic and popular politician superbly suited for leadership. This image contrasted favourably with that of the weak, inflexible and incompetent John Major, who “has been even unable to keep a couple of hundred would-be MPs in line”[10] in the election campaign.

            Both Blair and Major were trying to endear themselves to voters through numerous meetings and walkabouts held in March and April. In the articles concerning such events, Tony Blair was presented as an admired pop star, both in appearance and behaviour. His arrival in Brighton was described in the following words: “Tony descended, linked up with Cherie, and went walkabout. The crowd formed a square round like a little paddock, around which he strolled and autographed and laughed and joshed, a thoroughbred schmoozer.”[11] During these meetings there was usually a lot of noise and confusion caused by the fans and reporters gathering to see their idol. People were shouting, waving hands, reporters were taking pictures. There were also some jocular moments during such encounters: “ ‘Tony, what are you going to do for British rock music?’ asked a 22-year-old groover. ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,’ grated Blair, ‘I’m never going to play in a rock band again.’ ”[12] Even the weather during his walkabouts was favourable: “under blue skies and blazing sun, the crowds in Northampton witnessed a bravura performance.”[13]

            In contrast to Blair’s enthusiastic meetings with voters, John Major’s encounters with the public were presented as complete disasters, which indicated his unpopularity as a politician. “Surrounded by a hostile crowd largely made up of chanting students from Luton University, he was heckled with shouts of ‘you’ll be on the dole, John.’ An empty drink can was thrown as the scrum, with the Prime Minister in the centre, careered along the high street.”[14] Moreover, “one man shouted obscenities”[15] during the meeting with Major and the crowd “changed its chant: ‘Get your soup and slippers, Major, you’re boring.’ ”[16] Such presentations of Major’s public appearances undoubtedly emphasised his inability to communicate with ordinary people and predicted his failure in the election. At the same time, the reports of the Prime Minister’s campaigning misfortunes were extremely entertaining to the readers, and their scandalising tone broke the dullness of the political establishment. 

            Tony Blair was often presented as a young, dynamic and vigorous leader. According to The Independent’s database, he was connected with the word young 471 times during the election campaign, while John Major had just 379 links. Mr Blair and the word modern were paired 169 times, while the Prime Minister and the same word – only 124 times. “Passion, too, is the territory of Labour in the 1997 campaign. Mr Blair and passion were mentioned together 45 times, while Mr Major was clocked up just 22 mentions.”[17] Meanwhile, the most frequently quoted words of John Major – danger, conflict, drift, surrender – show him as a defensive politician afraid of his rival rather than someone offering a positive alternative.

 

Table 1. The most common words and phrases used by Tony Blair and John Major in the coverage of the election campaign.[18]

Labour Words

Tory Words

Challenge

Danger

Opportunity

Fear

Modern

Inexperience

New

Weaken

Transformation

Divide

Aspiration

Nation state

Ambition

Dictate

 

Major’s attacks, threats and accusations contrasted unfavourably with Blair’s rational election speeches and cast bad light on the Prime Minister’s political vision and skills.

            Blair’s lead over Major was also emphasised by the table with opinion poll results presented in The Times on 27 March 1997. It concerned both favourable and unfavourable things that had been said about the two leaders and showed how the same description was matched by votes with Major and Blair in February 1992 and in March 1997.

 

Table 2. Major and Blair: How They Compare.[19]

BLAIR

 

MAJOR

Change since Feb ‘92

 

Change since Feb ‘92

 

 

(-4)

10% now

14% Feb ‘92

Out of touch with ordinary people

 

(+20)

47% now

27% Feb ‘92

 

(+3)

36% now

33% Feb ‘92

Understanding the problems facing Britain

 

(-6)

27% now

33% Feb ‘92

 

(+17)

39% now

22% Feb ‘92

A capable leader

 

(-14)

22% now

36% Feb ‘92

 

(-14)

7% now

21% Feb ‘92

Rather narrow-minded

 

(+8)

22% now

14% Feb ‘92

 

(+4)

20% now

16% Feb ‘92

More honest than most politicians

 

(-9)

21% now

30% Feb ‘92

 

(-4)

12% now

16% Feb ‘92

Tends to talk down to people

 

(+6)

21% now

15% Feb ‘92

 

(-11)

6% now

17% Feb ‘92

Too inflexible

 

(+5)

19% now

14% Feb ‘92

 

(+8)

19% now

11% Feb ‘92

Has sound judgement

 

(-12)

11% now

23% Feb ‘92

 

(+16)

35% now

19% Feb ‘92

Has got a lot of personality

 

(-8)

6% now

14% Feb ‘92

 

The table presented Tony Blair in a highly positive light. He emerged from it as a capable, honest and flexible leader who understood British problems and was capable of sound judgement. Blair’s rich personality was used to disqualify the Conservative Party leader as an appropriate candidate for the premiership. The real aim of this allegedly statistical comparison was to improve the electoral image of the Labour Party and its leader.

            The contest of candidates strategy was used also in the case of photo opportunities, which were extremely important in forming the public image of the politicians and parties. “The result now is that the leaders’ election tours are largely structured around photo opportunities. Great care is taken to find suitable settings months in advance of the campaign.”[20] Both Tony Blair and John Major realised that pictures had a greater impact and were more memorable than words. As Martin Rosenbaum put it, “Whatever the words say, the visual image still makes the point.”[21] That is why they were both photographed while visiting hospitals, talking with ordinary people, sitting with the family, etc.

 

Table 3. The number of photographs of Tony Blair and John Major in The Times and The Independent (1 March – 1 May 1997)

 

BLAIR

MAJOR

With party members

19

9

With family

5

18

Alone

23

20

Walkabouts

17

5

Total

64

52

 

The photo opportunities also resembled the presidential style of the contest in America, since the leaders themselves dominated all the photographs. Undoubtedly, Tony Blair was the winner as far as the number of the published photographs is concerned. Very often he was shown as sitting alone in his living room and working. Such photographs suggested that readers could see him as he ‘really’ was, busy but happy in his domestic environment. At the same time, through angle and eye contact with the camera, he was brought down to the viewer’s level. The photographic construction of Blair as a private person, as someone ‘just like us,’ aimed at facilitating the reader’s identification with the otherwise distant political figure.

            The contest of candidates strategy extended also to astrology in order to forecast Tony Blair’s success in the election and to predict the failure of his political opponents. Neither in The Times nor in The Independent were horoscopes a regular column before, so when they appeared to tell the readers which candidate the stars took side with in this ‘battle,’ they certainly functioned as one more instrument of support. John Major’s horoscope of 29 March 1997 predicted his failure in the coming election. According to Nicholas Campion, the president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, “election victory is not [...] written in his stars” and that he should take an opportunity to “say goodbye to old friends.”[22] Also, Russell Grant, a tabloid astrologer, believed that “John Major will lose because he did not call an April poll,” which meant that “he will experience a life-changing event. Perhaps a fundamental change in his professional life.”[23] Jonathan Cainer, another astrologer, emphasised the fact that Major’s failure in the election would be the result of not having taken astrological advice when setting the election date. He added that “both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took astrological help when making important decisions, and the longevity of their political lives show this was hardly a foolish thing to do.”[24]

            In contrast to the pessimistic verdict of the stars for Major, the horoscope for Tony Blair showed him as the winner and assured the readers of his likely success in the election. “The stars are shining bright on the Labour leader at the moment. Venus the ruler is in his star sign, and so is Mercury, the planet of communications and commerce ... Unless the stars are wrong, it will be a Labour government leading Britain into the new millennium.”[25] In other words, even the stars were employed to convince the public that Mr Blair was destined for victory and that the year 1997 was a turning point in the Labour Party’s history. The horoscope, normally a tabloid genre, employed in a quality paper to promote Tony Blair may have been perceived by most of the readers as a joke. However, the horoscope language, with its excessive use of modal verbs conveying certainty, (such as will), and the use of Simple Present verb forms, served the paper as a form stating its political preferences. 

            The discussed strategy of the contest of candidates is an extremely vital and effective element in the media coverage of modern electioneering. First of all, it makes the presentation of politicians more entertaining to ordinary people and adds combative flavour to the routines of politics. Secondly, the contest form provides numerous opportunities to promote one’s own candidate and disqualify the others. The confrontational character of such coverage is achieved by various means. Firstly, the reports of the meetings with voters may exaggerate the reactions to candidates and distort the prevailing perception of the ordinary people by selective quotations. Hence, Tony Blair emerged from the reports as an admired and dynamic politician, whereas John Major came across as weak and unpopular, unable to communicate with the crowd. Similarly, The Times opinion poll, an example of the manipulative use of statistics, created the picture of the Labour leader as someone more popular and positive than Major. Finally, the type of photo opportunities and unequal allocation of photograph space worked in favour of Blair and his entourage. Even the contrasted verdicts of the stars assured the British voters that the winner and the next Prime Minister would be Tony Blair.

 

2. Celebrity endorsement

 

Another effective strategy of constructing a positive image of Tony Blair and his party was the celebrity endorsement. In other words, the candidate’s public image was created by comparing him to, or associating him with, people already popular, famous, successful and respected. Such presentations of support for the Labour candidate, aimed at telling the readers that he was regarded as the most suitable for the PM’s office, came from well-known people from various walks of life. The research done by the advertising agency Bates Dorland shows that “with the two main parties sounding so alike, endorsements by a favourite star can count.”[26] The engagement of the well-known people in the campaign adds glamour to electioneering and helps to get good publicity as well as attention. “… the parties hope to borrow for themselves some of the celebrity’s popularity or credibility, and to associate their cause with the values which the celebrity represents.”[27] According to The Times and The Independent, Tony Blair was supported during the election campaign, by big names from politics, business, and show business, such as Lord Attenborough, Bianca Jagger, Mick Hucknall – the leader of Simply Red, Mel C of the Spice Girls, Lady Smith – the wife of the late John Smith, Gerry Robinson – Granada Group chairman, Alec Reed – Sun Life chairman and Alan Shearer – a football player. Adrian Hadland, one of The Independent’s journalists, remarked that “the Blair endorsement list remains impressive. By contrast, John Major’s support among movers and shakers looks ... well, shaky.”[28]

            During the election campaign all Blair’s backers were reported as appearing at rallies or while delivering endorsements in broadcasts, ads, leaflets; posing for photo opportunities with Blair and engaging the attention of the public on walkabouts. Interestingly, the pattern of support by well-known people threw some interesting sidelights on the broader patterns of political support. Labour performed better in the 1997 election campaign, according to The Independent, in the fields of entertainment (Lord Attenborough, Bianca Jagger, Mick Hucknall, Mel C) and business (Gerry Robinson, Alec Reed), while the Conservatives scored well in sport (Frank Bruno, former boxer; David Seaman, goalkeeper and Michael Atherton, cricketer). Sometimes celebrities swap sides. In 1992 Sir Richard Attenborough had switched to support Labour. During the 1997 election campaign he was described by The Times as “Labour’s latest secret weapon, who decided to make the campaign a full time job.”[29] His determination to back Tony Blair was quite dramatic. He was reported saying: “I think I will die this time if we don’t win. I shall feel like going abroad if Labour loses, but I won’t because I couldn’t live anywhere else. I nearly left when Margaret Thatcher won.”[30] The strategy of creating the picture of a famous person highly motivated to vote Labour aimed at boosting the popularity of the Party and Tony Blair among the potential voters.            

Apart from Richard Attenborough, some other well-known stars were reported to give their endorsement to Tony Blair and the New Labour. Richard Wilson, the star of the comedy One Foot in the Grave; Michelle Collins and Ross Kemp from East-Enders as well as Coronation Street performers lent their names to the campaign under the headline “What are the stars saying about Labour?” Mick Hucknall, the Simply Red pop group singer, was quoted saying that “my father told me again and again as a child that under the Tories the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I still think it’s true. If you want to make a change, you have to vote new Labour.”[31] Presenting such personal confessions coming from “the mouths of people who are perceived as individually important or at least interestingly characterizable”[32] is the example of personalisation in discourse. Its purpose is to evoke the feelings of empathy, identification and approval. As people, especially the young, often identify with their idols, Hucknall’s deep belief in New Labour was likely to improve the political image of the party and its leader among his fans.

            Just two days before the polling day Baroness Smith of Gilmorehill, the widow of John Smith, the former Labour leader, was reported appealing to “the Scottish people to vote Labour and complete her husband’s ‘unfinished business.’”[33] Baroness Smith, who had gone abroad to escape the general election campaign, delivered a message to Scottish voters in a letter to Gordon Brown, the Shadow Chancellor, the fragments of which were reprinted in The Times.  She wrote that “there is nothing more important now than a Labour victory. I know this is what John wanted and worked for. And a Labour victory allows us to complete what John called unfinished business, the creation of a Scottish parliament.”[34] In other words, she urged Scotland not to waste their votes since, in her opinion, Labour was the only party that could defeat the Conservatives. Such convincing words, which were regarded as support from beyond ‘the tomb’ from the man who had devoted his life to Labour Party modernisation, indubitably helped Blair win the election.

            Quite unexpectedly, at the beginning of the election campaign, the papers brought the news about Blair’s being backed by Baroness Thatcher, the former Conservative PM of the United Kingdom. The article entitled “Thatcher lined up to be Blair’s ambassador in Washington” read that “Thatcher has already told friends that she admires Mr Blair’s disciplined determination.”[35] In the quoted article from the Daily Mail of September 1996 she was reported saying: “He knows exactly what he wants and how to go about achieving it.”[36] Quoting such an opinion expressed by Mrs Thatcher, regarded as a political celebrity in Britain, albeit controversial, and a person who had weakened the Labour Party by her anti-union policy, obviously improved the electoral image of Tony Blair. In another article, Baroness Thatcher was reported saying added that she “privately believes that Britain will be safe in Mr Blair’s hands,”[37] the statement which, as a matter of fact, blew a massive hole in Tory election slogan “a leap in the dark with Labour.”[38] Paul Johnson, a Thatcherite commentator, stated: “I suspect that to Thatcher [...] Blair is the ‘good’ son she never had.”[39] In fact, Margaret Thatcher was later reported backing John Major and presenting him as the continuator of her politics, but her positive attitude towards Blair reported earlier eliminated to some extent possible doubts of the floating voters about the new Labour government and helped Blair win more votes.

 

3. Unmasking Tories’ Negative Campaigning

 

One of the strategies of constructing the positive image of the Labour Party and Tony Blair employed both in The Times and The Independent was monitoring the Tories’ negative campaigning. Since “voting is a choice between certain fixed options, and is often motivated not by liking for one party, but by dislike for the others,”[40] it is not surprising that parties try hard to draw public attention to political and personal defects of their opponents. As Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy put it, “a process of public humiliation is now an integral part of the electoral system” and is “reinforced by the prominence of negative advertising.”[41] This strategy is an extremely effective strategy of attracting voters because “negative information has more impact on our thinking, is more easily remembered and is a more powerful motivating force than positive information.”[42] This is so despite the fact that in opinion research people claimed that they did not like negative campaigning.

            It was John Major whom The Independent presented as starting a negative campaign against the Labourites and Tony Blair. On 1 March 1997, while announcing the election struggle, he was reported “warning the country that it risked the midsummer nightmare of a Labour landslide, opening the way for Tony Blair to overturn Tory success with the policies of full-blooded Socialism.”[43] Donald Dewar, Labour’s Chief Whip fresh from the triumph of the Wirral South by-election, replied immediately in the same newspaper saying: “Major seems to have lost the plot. It is clear that John Major has been up all night, and what’s more, his morale has hit rock bottom.”[44] And Tony Blair was quoted pronouncing: “arrogant, out of touch, squabbling already about who should be the next leader, that is today’s Conservative Party.”[45] In this way The Independent informed the readers that it was John Major who launched a negative campaign against the Labour Party and used his best energies to show that the opponent was unfit to rule. In result, the Labour Party was reported to resort to the same tactics since, according to The Independent, Tony Blair and other party members were not given much choice by the Tories.

            Another example of Tory negative campaigning unmasked and denounced by The Independent was a series of texts devoted to the election advertisement presenting a lion shedding a red tear. This image had been created by Maurice Saatchi, the Conservatives advertising specialist, and meant to symbolise the fears of having a new Labour government. However, some senior Tories “were reported to have been dismayed that the advertisement failed to roar the party’s message to the electorate and boost its image by rising doubts over Labour.”[46] Also, two experienced and well-known advertising experts were reported to criticise the lion advertisement as pathetic. In the article “Tories’ tearful lion...” they described the Conservatives effort in the following words: “The Conservatives are not a fashionable brand. It’s like trying to sell a cheap pair of jeans when people really want Levi’s. Levi’s is new Labour and there is very little the Tories can do to solve that.”[47] After a few days, The Independent’s polling showed that this style of campaign was unpopular and unconvincing. In this situation John Major called in Charles Saatchi to write some slogans for the poster campaign, such as ‘Britain Is Booming. Don’t Let Labour Blow It.’ Gerry Moira, a creative director of the rival agency Publicis, commented on it in the following way: “the party is bankrupt of ideas and it would seem its advertising agency is as well.”[48] In the same article he stated that “both campaign’s advertising have been disappointing and unfocused. No one’s imagination has been captured, we’ve just been berated and threatened.”[49] Blair’s response to these examples of negative campaigning exposed by The Independent was refocusing Labour’s election strategy with “an attempt to lift the campaign on to more positive issues.”[50] He wanted the campaign to concentrate on issues rather than “tit-for-tat politics.”[51] “People want to hear about the issues ... not just one set of politicians knocking another set,”[52] he said. That is why the Labour Party decided to be positive every time the Tories were negative, since too much negative campaigning was turning the voters off from the election. These examples show that Tony Blair appeared in The Independent’s articles as a calm and reasonable politician respecting the rules of fair play. This image contrasted favourably with the aggressive and incoherent John Major, whose style of political fight revealed his poor ability of playing fair.

            The most aggressive poster campaign commented on by the British press was a placard presenting Tony Blair with wolf-like eyes which enlarged each week of the campaign. The Advertising Standards Authority censored the poster describing it in The Times as “sinister and dishonest.”[53] The posters was also criticised by the Bishop of Oxford and a handful of Tory MPs. John Major allegedly agreed on the use of the placard despite “his reported reluctance to engage in personal attacks or indulge in negative campaigning.”[54] Such attitudes and behaviour indicated Major’s double-dealing and proved his inadequacy as a politician and Prime Minister.

            The atmosphere of the contest and negative campaigning was reinforced in many articles by the stock of combative, emotionally loaded vocabulary.[55]

 

            accused                                    cynics                           straggling band

            insecure                                    war                               triumphant entry

            failed                            fight                              enemy’s hands

            let down                                    fear                              hungry for government

            denied                          hate                              self-imposed chains

            disguised                      risk                 

imprisoned                   

 

Unmasking Tories’ negative campaigning in order to point out the weaknesses of the opponent party and warn against the consequences of its victory was not a new press strategy. According to David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh, “it has been a persistent feature of British party competition.”[56] Surveys report that 47 per cent of voters think the Conservative Party has had the most negative advertisements compared with 15 per cent for Labour. In the analysed texts, various attitudes to negative electioneering were contrasted with different qualities of the contestants. John Major was shown in The Times and The Independent as a relentless and incoherent politician whose approval of an aggressive poster campaign pointed to his weak sense of fair play. This image was juxtaposed to the calm and reasonable Tony Blair respecting the fair play code and appealing for more positive forms of making political statements. Presenting the two candidates through their attitude towards negative campaigning worked in favour of Tony Blair, whose refusal to use the weapon proposed by the Tories made him more honest and credible in the eyes of the electorate.

 

4. Switchers’ acknowledgement

 

The Times and The Independent employed a very popular newspaper genre known as the human interest story in order to create a new image of the Labour Party and Tony Blair. Stories presenting ‘switchers,’ i.e. ordinary people who changed their political opinions, proved to be an extremely effective strategy for promoting the preferred candidate, at the same time depreciating the rival candidate. In the human interest stories published in The Times and The Independent in the pre-election weeks John Major and his party came across as out of date, unconvincing and indecisive, while Tony Blair and the New Labour appeared as trustworthy when promising real changes and new opportunities for British citizens.

The Times distinguished three kinds of switchers. The first group consisted of “former Tory voters whose conversions, temporary or permanent, now account for the large Labour lead.”[57] The other two groups “are the hard cases who have given up on the Conservatives; there are those who say they are pretty confident of going over; and there are those who are looking for an excuse to go back.”[58] However, the strongest and most numerous group was made of people who had given up voting for the Tories and really believed in Blair’s political competence and inborn aptitude for leadership.

Both The Times and The Independent presented the switchers’ acknowledgement in the articles devoted to the candidates’ walkabouts and meetings with future voters. In her article entitled “Labour leader goes straight to the target,” Fran Abrams presented the opinions of Graham Pepperell, who actually “had not yet made up his mind but ‘is leaning towards Labour’ ”[59] because “Mr Blair came across as quite sincere. He’s a young man and if he wants to establish a long career in politics he will try to deliver the goods.”[60]

Another person reported to have intended to support Tony Blair was Lionel Baird, 52, who described himself as an “unhappy Conservative and apprehensive Labour.”[61] He explained that he was grateful for all he had been able to achieve in 18 years of the Conservative rule but for the first time he was switching his vote to Labour. “I’m not 100 per cent sure and I feel apprehensive, but I think I will give new Labour a go. It’s time for a change,”[62] he said. The same article mentioned Adrian Buck, 30, a self-employed bricklayer who had made up his mind to support New Labour, claiming the Conservatives were no longer trustworthy. “The key issue for him are the state of the National Health Service and the education system and he believes Labour may do better than the Conservatives on the economy.”[63] Another switcher presented was Roger Frost, who, echoing the opinion of many others in the group, believed the campaign would have little impact on people. “I think most people will not change their minds now. I’m 99.9 per cent sure I will vote Labour this time – it’s simply time we had a change.”[64] Such statements of ordinary people were likely to appeal to the future voters and help them make up their mind how to vote on 1 May 1997. In the reports, these people did not seem to be manipulated by anybody and they were very convincing only because they were not so different from an average British voter. But the very fact that the persons chosen for the stories in The Times and The Independent happened to switch from the Conservatives to Labour, and not the other way round, proves that the newspapers in question backed the Labour Party and its leader in their coverage of the 1997 election campaign.

In the reports of Tony Blair’s visit to Northampton Town many switchers were quoted presenting their reasons for voting Labour and Blair in the election. “He is the best hope we’ve got,”[65] said Doris Brown, 60, a nurse who gave him a spring of heather for luck. “I was Conservative for years but now I’m changing to Labour.”[66] During this visit a considerable number of people were reported as saying they were abandoning the Tories because the future was Labour. One of the persons who gave up their life-long Conservative allegiance was John McCririck, who had become a fervent New Labour backer. He said, “You would have to be an absolute mug to bet on John Major winning. He is clapped out, finished, and so is his party.”[67] About Labour he stated: “I have never voted Labour in my life, but I am going to now. I like Tony Blair, and I believe he will do a good job.”[68]

The most dramatic and convincing acknowledgement of a switcher was presented by The Independent on 25 April 1997. It was Elsie Butler, who had voted Tory since 1979 but had decided this time to vote Labour because she was angry at the appalling treatment experienced by her sick husband. She told The Independent about the moment she had lost faith in the Tories. “For 30 years, she has been waging a battle against cancer; so has Mr Butler. They have each had their bowel and bladder removed.”[69] Together, they had a unique view of three decades of NHS change. They said those 30 years represented a decline in patient care. “Things are getting worse. When I first started getting treatment, things were fine. But now there are mixed sex wards, not enough beds, dreadful shortages of nurses and appalling food.”[70] Mrs Butler’s decision to vote Labour had been made after being persuaded by her husband to attend a meeting with Tony Blair. “I gave him a hard time, and I emerged convinced. He’s sincere and I think I can trust him. At least you know he believes in the NHS.”[71] The article was accompanied by a photograph presenting Mr and Mrs Butler that made their story even more dramatic and convincing. Their faces expressed a strong emotion. “Yet the particular ways that these press photographs resonate with other forms of photography that are private and familiar, make the people in them accessible to viewers.”[72] After all, it was their story that was being told. And the eye-contact between them and the readers made this couple honest and trustworthy.

The switchers’ acknowledgement and their approval of the New Labour Party and Tony Blair were also developed by the selection of words emphasising the difference between the Labour and the Conservatives as well as the contrasts between their leaders. Positive adjectives such as sincere, enthusiastic, charismatic, were ascribed to Tony Blair and his party, while negative ones were used with regard to John Major and the Conservative Party. This stood for an immense polarisation and presenting these two parties in sharp contrast by both The Times and The Independent.

 

Table 4. The words and phrases describing the two parties and leaders employed by the switchers in the coverage of the election campaign.[73]

 

The Labour Party and Tony Blair

The Conservatives and John Major

Sincere

Enthusiastic

Unhappy

Not fashionable

Good job

Happy

Clapped out

Unacceptable

Trust

Fair

Finished

Speaking only to half of the nation

Charismatic

Very committed

No longer trustworthy

Not strong enough

Electable

Popular

Disillusioned

Degrading

Hope

Personable

 

 

 

 

5. Conclusion

 

Summing up, it has to be stated that The Times and The Independent aimed at creating a new image of the Labour Party and its leader by providing readers with highly enthusiastic acknowledgement of ordinary people. Undoubtedly, such confessions aimed at strengthening the belief of readers that the party had been transformed and that Tony Blair was the only appropriate candidate for Prime Minister’s office. This strategy was also used to contrast the political images of Tony Blair and John Major. Consequently, the Tory leader was presented as an unpopular and untrustworthy politician, whereas Blair stood out as a sincere and charismatic leader. The plain photograph of Mr and Mrs Butler expressing their easy to read emotions reinforced the message of the reports, since, according to many news editors, “one picture is worth a thousand words.”[74]

It has been demonstrated how two British daily newspapers, The Times and The Independent, created and promoted the new image of the Labour Party and its leader Tony Blair. The following journalistic strategies of promotion were identified: the contest of candidates, the celebrity endorsement, the unmasking of the Tories’ negative campaigning and the switchers’ acknowledgement. The adaptation of the well-known American techniques of the contest of candidates and the celebrity endorsement for covering the campaign and its main actors resulted in projecting Tony Blair’s energy and political skills. This image contrasted favourably with the unpopular and incoherent John Major. These techniques also provided a framework of reporting which was attractive to the readers, as the combative atmosphere broke the dullness of political news. Moreover, the unmasking of the Tories’ negative campaigning attempted to depreciate John Major and reveal his poor sense of fair play in the political fight. In fact, it seriously questioned his predisposition for leadership, since in British culture fair play had always been a crucial element of any competition. Also, the switchers’ acknowledgement undermined Major’s credibility with the electorate at large and suggested his inadequacy as a politician. Tony Blair’s superiority over the Tory leader was emphasised even by the horoscopes, which predicted the former’s success in the general election. Such a favourable presentation of one candidate was aimed at persuading the floating voters that supporting Blair’s political rivals meant a waste of their votes. Above all, this analysis proved that two seemingly neutral newspapers, namely The Times and The Independent, supported the Labour Party and its leader while making use of the outwardly objective election news.

 



[1] Butler, Kavanagh, The British General Election, p. 170.

[2] Ibid., p. 171.

[3] Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies (London: Unwin Hyman, Inc., 1990), p. 17.

[4] Ibid., pp. 32-33.

[5] Roger Fowler, Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).

[6] John Fiske, Introduction to Communication Studies (London, Routledge 2nd ed., 1990), p. 136.

[7] Rosenbaum, From Soapbox to Soundbite, p. 265.

[8] Ibid., p. 179.

[9] Dennis Kavanagh, British Politics. Continuities and Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 82.

[10] Kim Sengupta, “US writers offer no respite,” The Independent, 23 April 1997, p. 12.

[11] John Walsh, “Blair basks in the sunshine of approval,” The Independent, 16 April 1997, p. 13.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Steve Boggan, “Party buses head for highway battles,” The Independent, 2 April 1997, p. 10.

[14] Colin Brown, “Major’s soapbox gets its first outing in campaign,” The Independent, 18 March 1997, p. 5.

[15] Colin Brown, “Major on course  among real runners and riders,” The Independent, 12 April 1997, p. 10.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Fran Abrams, “Millbank tendency gives words whole new meaning,” The Independent, 24 April 1997, p. 10.

[18] Philip Webster, “How attacks ‘damaging’ Tony advert,” The Times, 19 April 1997, p. 1; Colin Brown, Anthony Bevins, “Think again. Look in my eyes and know this: I will always deal fair and true,” The Independent, 24 April 1997, p. 1; Abrams, “Millbank tendency,” p. 10; Philip Webster, “Tories attack 'bare-faced' lies by Blair,” The Times, 25 April 1997, p. 1.

[19] After Peter Riddell, “Blair’s bad built on widespread rejection of Tories,” The Times, 27 March 1997, p. 14.

[20] Rosenbaum, From Soapbox to Soundbite, pp. 99-100.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Clare Garner, “Sorry, John: there’s no solace in the stars,” The Independent, 29 March 1997, p. 1.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Kim Sengupta, “Astrologers chart cosmic encouragement for Blair,” The Independent, 1 May 1997, p. 13.

[25] Ibid., p. 13.

[26] Louise Jury, “Fame game could make all the difference on the big day,” The Independent, 28 April 1997, p. 10.

[27] Rosenbaum, From Soapbox to Soundbite, p. 270.

[28] Adrian Hadland, “Movers and shakers line up to support main parties,” The Independent, 18 March 1997, p. 7.

[29] Damian Whitworth, “Win or I die, says Lord Dickie,” The Times, 17 April 1997, p. 1.

[30] Ibid., p. 1.

[31] Andrew Pierce, “Labour turns new page in campaign,” The Times, 11 April 1997, p. 13.

[32] Fowler, Language in the News, p. 230.

[33] “John Smith widow ends her silence,” The Times, 30 April 1997, p. 13.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Jojo Moyes, “Thatcher lined up to be Blair’s ambassador in Washington,” The Independent, 1 April 1997, p. 1.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Colin Brown, “Blair is Thatcher’s 'next choice,' ” The Independent, 17 March 1997, p. 7.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Rosenbaum, From Soapbox to Soundbite, p. 267.

[41] Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy, The Phenomenon of Political Marketing, p. 240.

[42] Rosenbaum, From Soapbox to Soundbite, p. 267.

[43] Anthony Bevins, “Now Tories fear a Blair revolution,” The Independent, 1 March 1997, p. 1.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Anthony Bevins, “Tories’ tearful lion is retired in disgrace,” The Independent, 3 March 1997, p. 5.

[47] Ibid., p. 5.

[48] Paul McCann, “Wobby Tories recall creative guru,” The Independent, 26 March 1997, p. 7.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Colin Brown, “Blair has positive thoughts,” The Independent, 14 April 1997, p. 1.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Steve Boggan, “BBC election coverage attacked as ‘too fair,’ ” The Independent, 14 April 1997, p. 8.

[53] Andrew Pierce, “Blair eyes campaign will be revived,” The Times, 25 March 1997, p. 10.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Donald MacIntyre, “Thatcher’s spectre still haunts the feast,” The Independent, 18 March 1997, p. 19; Polly Toynbee, “Don’t let them tell you it doesn’t matter who wins,” The Independent, 18 March 1997, p. 19; Andreas Whittam Smith, “Voters are too insecure to feel good,” The Independent, 18 March 1997, p. 19; Gillian Bowditch, Arthur Leathley, Philip Webster, “Blair accused of insulting the Scots,” The Times, 5 April 1997, p. 1.

[56] Butler, Kavanagh, The British General Election, p. 240.

[57] Philip Webster, Jill Sherman, “The week John Major began to hit back,” The Times, 12 April 1997, p. 9.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Fran Abrams, “Labour leader goes straight to the target,” The Independent, 18 March 1997, p. 5.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Michael Streeter, “Politicians argue but voters have made up their minds,” The Independent, 18 March 1997, p. 6.

[62] Ibid., p. 6. 

[63] Ibid.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Boggan, “Party buses,” p. 10.

[66] Ibid., p. 10.   

[67] Kim Sengupta, “Serious betting money on Blair,” The Independent, 12 April 1997, p. 10.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Steve Boggan, “Story behind Labour stunt,” The Independent, 25 April 1997, p. 1.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Karin E. Becker, “Photojournalism and the Tabloid Press,” in Peter Dahlgren and Colin Sparks [eds.], Journalism and Popular Culture (London: Sage, 1992), p. 140.

[73] Boggan, “Story behind,” p. 1; Streeter, “Politicians argue,” p. 6; Boggan, “Party buses,” p. 10;

Sengupta, “Serious betting money,” p. 10;  Dominic Kennedy, “Blair has made his party electable,” The Times, 24 April 1997, p. 9.

[74] Beth Edginton, Martin Montgomery, The Media (Manchester: The British Council, 1996), p. 97.

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