Pasty tax and secret trials: was it really the Mail and the Sun ‘wot won it’?

Today the Daily Mail and the Sun claimed their respective campaigns against ‘secret trials’ and the ‘pasty tax’ forced Government to abandon both policies. Can newspapers really exert that much influence over policymaking?

Although I don’t doubt politicians pay attention to what’s in the popular press, I don’t believe securing a policy u-turn is as simple as a newspaper banging a drum. Influencing policy is more complicated than that. It usually takes a concerted effort, often by a coalition of interests, to make the case for policy change, demonstrate public opinion is behind the proposed change, that it is affordable and unlikely to have adverse impacts on voters. The Mail’s own front page acknowledged as much. It said: “Ministers have been forced to back down following a massive outcry from civil rights groups, MPs and lawyers”. The Mail was not acting alone but amplified a message that simultaneously reached Government via other routes.

The Sun (whose headline “Pasty La Vista, Taxman” should surely win a prize!) quoted George Osborne who says he “listened to Sun readers”. On Monday Tony Blair told the Leveson inquiry that the Mail and the Sun are the two most powerful papers in the UK. Rather than being swayed by the clamour of these newspapers, I suspect it’s more likely that policy makers caught on to the vote-losing potential of these unpopular policies by listening to backbench MPs reporting constituents’ concerns, and hearing from a variety of lobby groups.

Rather than taking the papers’ claims at face value, a more useful lesson to draw might be that politicians continue to view the Mail and the Sun as providing a unique and direct channel to a particular subset of voters – the fabled Middle England – and are only too happy to let these papers take credit for securing policy change if it makes those voters feel the Government is listening to them.

What do you think?

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