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The Role of the Media in Shaping General Election Outcomes in the UK

The role of the media in shaping general election outcomes in the UK has evolved significantly over the past 50 years. From the dominance of newspapers and television to the rise of social media, each medium has had a profound impact on public opinion and voting behavior.

This article examines how different media forms have influenced UK elections, highlights the interplay between media and political parties, and explores the specific case of Brexit as a pivotal media-driven event.

Traditional Media: Newspapers and Television


For much of the late 20th century, newspapers were the primary source of political information for the British public. Major newspapers often displayed clear political leanings, with some consistently supporting particular parties. For example, The Sun, traditionally a Labour supporter, switched allegiance to the Conservatives in the 1979 general election, which coincided with Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power. This shift is often cited as a factor in the Conservative victory.

The Sun Newspaper 1979, Backing Margaret Thatcher & The Conservatives
The Sun Newspaper 1979, Backing Margaret Thatcher & The Conservatives

The Sun, shall we say may wish to be known as The Flip-Flop of Media as it likes to basically back whoever it believes will win the election. Holding its card close to its chest. As an example in 1997, it supported Tony Blair to become PM.

Blair Backed by The Sun in 1997
Blair Backed by The Sun in 1997 – The Guardian

Other influential newspapers include The Daily Telegraph and The Times, which generally lean Conservative, and The Guardian and The Independent, which are more supportive of Labour or Liberal Democrats. The editorial stance of these papers can shape public discourse, influence voter perceptions, and ultimately impact election outcomes.

Newspaper Election Coverage
Do All Newspaper Have a Bias? Yes – LSE


Television became a significant political battleground with the advent of televised debates and extensive news coverage. The first-ever televised debate in the UK was in 2010, between Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Nick Clegg.

 TV Leaders Debates changed General Elections
Do you remember the words “I agree with Nick” from Mr Cameron? – TV Leaders Debates changed General Elections from 2010

These debates provided a platform for candidates to reach millions of viewers, potentially swaying undecided voters. Television news programs, such as those by the BBC, ITV, and Sky News, also play a crucial role in framing political narratives and providing analysis.

Some claim with so many debates and people, the debates at time are useless... BBC Leaders Debate
Some claim with so many debates and people, the debates at time are useless… BBC Leaders Debate

The Advent of New Technology: Social Media

The rise of the internet and social media over the past two decades has dramatically transformed the political landscape. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have become essential tools for political campaigning.

Organic and Paid Media

Political parties and candidates use social media to engage with voters directly, bypassing traditional media gatekeepers. Organic social media involves unpaid posts that aim to create viral content and foster community engagement. For example, during the 2017 and 2019 general elections, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn effectively used social media to mobilize young voters and promote their manifesto.

Paid media, on the other hand, involves targeted advertising. The 2019 Conservative campaign notably utilized Facebook ads to reach specific demographics with tailored messages.

The precision of data analytics allows parties to focus their resources on swing voters and key constituencies, potentially influencing election outcomes more efficiently than traditional methods.

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Media Bias and Political Alignment

The media’s role in elections is often scrutinized for bias. Media bias can manifest in the selection of news stories, the framing of issues, and the prominence given to certain candidates. This bias can shape public perception and voting behavior, either subtly or overtly.

Support for Parties

Certain media outlets are known for their political endorsements. For instance, The Sun’s endorsement has been sought after by political parties due to its wide readership and perceived influence on public opinion. In contrast, The Guardian and The Daily Mirror typically endorse Labour candidates, while The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph often support the Conservatives.

The Brexit Referendum: A Case Study

The 2016 Brexit referendum is a prime example of the media’s power in shaping political outcomes. Both traditional and new media played pivotal roles in the campaign.

Traditional Media

Newspapers were divided, with The Sun, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Telegraph supporting the Leave campaign, while The Guardian and The Financial Times supported Remain. The Leave-supporting papers often published stories highlighting the negatives of EU membership and the potential benefits of leaving.

Social Media

The Leave campaign’s effective use of social media is widely acknowledged. They utilized targeted ads, particularly on Facebook, to disseminate their messages and slogans like “Take Back Control.” These ads were tailored to appeal to specific concerns of different voter segments, amplifying their reach and impact.

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The Role of the Media in Shaping General Election Outcomes in the UK
Brexit Ads, Remain and Leave – Sky News

Conversely, the Remain campaign was criticized for its less effective use of social media and failure to counteract the emotive and straightforward messaging of the Leave campaign. The Brexit referendum demonstrated how social media could amplify and entrench political divisions, influencing a significant national decision.


Over the past 50 years, the media landscape in the UK has evolved from the dominance of newspapers and television to the proliferation of social media. Each medium has played a crucial role in shaping general election outcomes, influencing public opinion, and reflecting or amplifying political biases. The Brexit referendum highlighted the power of targeted social media campaigns in modern politics. As technology continues to evolve, the media’s role in elections will undoubtedly adapt, presenting new challenges and opportunities for democratic engagement.

Written By

Andy is the Editor of iNostalgia and is a regular contributor the exploring history & nostalgia category, with a love for community nostalgia.

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