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Media Coverage of the Election Campaign is Both Baffling and Predicable – With a Very Unlikely Winner

One party really missed out on coverage with no page one appearances, interviews, or bylines – and it certainly wasn’t Reform

A selection of UK daily newspaper front pages on the day of the 2024 General Election. Photo: UrbanImages / Alamy
A selection of UK daily newspaper front pages on the day of the 2024 General Election. Photo: UrbanImages / Alamy

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In the six weeks since the election was called, our ten paid-for national newspapers have published just under 2,000 news pages on the campaign.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the imbalance between the number of papers supporting the two main parties, the number of those pages that could be seen as favourable or unfavourable to either party is fairly evenly split.

For the purposes of this exercise, I looked at the dominant story on each page and logged it as positive or negative – on the basis of whether the party itself would be pleased or dismayed to see the way it was presented.

So if a policy were presented straight, it would go down as “positive”, even if the paper – or its readership – might not approve. Keir Starmer saying Jeremy Corbyn would have been a better prime minister than Boris Johnson, for example. Where there was spin, that determined how the story was logged. Nearly every word written about Rishi Sunak leaving Normandy early on D-Day was negative. But the Express’s splash “Truly sorry” had to count as positive. 

There were, of course, some – not a lot – that were neutral. There were – very occasionally – unslanted stories about particular constituencies or particular issues. There was also some even-handed reporting of the televised debates – the Sun was notable in this after it hosted an event in the final week, which compared favourably with the Express’s ‘Kapow! Feisty Rishi floors Starmer’ approach after the first match.

Then there were some simple but informative spreads: over the past few days, the i has produced charts detailing every party’s stance on virtually every issue, and several published guides to election night and maps showing the key constituencies. 


How the Press Leaned into a Labour Victory

The i, which made a point of not endorsing any party, was the most assiduous in remaining aloof. Of its 291 election pages, 66 were neutral, the most of any title. But, overall, it still accentuated the negative rather than the positive, with 74 logged as “anti-Tory” and 46 “anti-Labour”, against 40 “pro-Labour” and only 28 that would have pleased the Conservatives.

Across the whole of Fleet Street, 729 pages would have made comfortable reading for those in the blue corner against 696 for the reds. That last tally was greatly helped by the Guardian, whose election coverage has been far more extensive than anyone else’s, with a total of 349 news pages. The Times, Telegraph, Mail and Express all ran just over 200 apiece.

Labour leader Keir Starmer and his wife, Victoria, arriving to cast their votes in the 2024 General Election on July 4. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

The Mirror has been the most partisan of all, with 85 news pages showing how dreadful the Conservatives were and 67 telling readers all the great things Labour would do.

While even the most dedicated Conservative papers couldn’t miss Sunak’s blunders and duly reported them, whether in sorrow, anger of frustration, the Mirror published just two page leads unfavourable to Labour (most notably playing down the Diane Abbott saga) and not a single page that could be seen as positive for the Tories over the entire campaign. 

The Guardian wasn’t quite that lop-sided, but it still produced a final score of 198-43 in favour of Labour, with 55 neutral pages and a further 53 that majored on other parties (half of them being about Reform).

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On the other side of the coin, the Mail ran 29 more stories (91) moaning about Labour than it did showing the Conservatives in a good light, making a total of 153 for the blues against a total of 27 for the reds – nine of those courtesy of the Conservatives getting something wrong.

The Express was far more upbeat, with 92 pages the Conservatives would be happy to read – many of them the product of its “Rishi says” school of journalism. ‘I’m on your side!’, ‘PM: axe to fall on university rip-off degrees’, ‘Up the workers! PM promises 2p cut in national insurance’. These were bolstered by a further 69 doing down Labour, while there were just three that wouldn’t go down well with the Tories and four crumbs of comfort for Starmer. 

The Murdoch papers were both more positive than negative in their coverage overall and the Sun was more generous than the other rightwingers in giving prominence to stories that made Labour look good. The Sun’s final score was still a 80-24 win for the Conservatives. Which made its late endorsement of Labour on Wednesday the more eyebrow-raising. Meanwhile, Labour just edged it for the Times at 84-76, with 29 neutral pages and 36 for other parties – all but five of those devoted to Reform.


Now, we Come to Nigel – and the Missing

Which brings us to the great disrupter. Nigel Farage was everywhere, while Ed Davey, the man who might conceivably have become the leader of the opposition, was virtually nowhere – unless he was bungee jumping, paddleboarding, going down a water slide, knocking over dominoes or performing some other whacky stunt.

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage arrives at Clacton Leisure Centre in Clacton, Essex, during the count for the 2024 General Election. Photo: PA Images / Alamy

There were a couple of page leads when the Lib Dem manifesto was published, but apart from that almost nothing.

The Greens did get as far as one front page – a negative “anti-semitism” splash in the Times – and Carla Denyer was interviewed by the i. But not the Lib Dems. No page one appearances, no interviews, guest bylines, nothing. Even Count Binface managed three front pages and an endorsement from the Daily Star.


The Sun Switcheroo and the Predictable Telegraph

For most papers, the real indicator of the editorial line comes not from the inside news content, but from the front page and the comment section. Unless you’re the Sun, it seems. Over 40 days, it ran 30 “Sun says” articles on the election. Ten of them were in support of the Conservatives, 15 critical of Labour. Two related to Reform. Just the one, on July 8 when it addressed Sunak’s early departure from the D-Day celebrations, found fault with the Conservatives, while only two had a good thing to say about Labour. And then, on Wednesday, it suddenly told readers to vote for Starmer. 

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There was certainly no doubt about where the Telegraph stood. It was fed up with everyone – Labour, Conservative wets and disruptive Reform. Out of 74 opinion columns and 30 leaders, 90 attacked Labour, while a further nine – including one by Suella Braverman on the eve of polling – criticised the Conservatives. Only 13 found positives about the party it supports, but the real surprise was that two commentators found cause to be nice to Labour. No leader writer found anything to commend about Labour or anything to condemn about the Conservatives.

The Telegraph wasn’t alone in this wholehearted approach. Neither of the whitetop tabloids ran a single op-ed column that said anything good about Labour, although both managed a solitary leader that that could be counted as positive for Starmer – and both found half a dozen causes to question Sunak. 

The Times – the only paper to run an election splash every day of the campaign, with the exception of the day Donald Trump was convicted – was fairly balanced in its news reporting, but the commentators were more hostile to Labour, with a tally of 22 negatives for Labour, against three critical of the Conservatives. There were seven positives for each of the two main parties. When it came to the crunch, editor Tony Gallagher accepted that defeat for the Conservatives was inevitable, publishing a political obit for Sunak as its main editorial on the day before polling. The next day, the paper grudgingly wished Starmer success (for the country’s sake), but declined to endorse either party, 

On the other side of the fence, the Guardian found nothing good to say about the Conservatives in its splashes or leader columns, although there was one outlier in the comment pages. It ran 17 lead stories discomforting for the ruling party and 30 editorials critical of the Conservatives – but the leader writers did also find fault with Labour ten times.

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An Unlikely – Balanced and Incisive – Star

Perhaps the paper that most caught the public mood was the Daily Star (which doesn’t feature in the charts because its figures would be more a banana skin count than a useful indication of bias or lack of it). It had acted as an irreverent opposition party throughout the Conservative administration, depicting Johnson and Matt Hancock as clowns, Sunak as Biggles – on account of his affection for travelling by helicopter – and, most famously, Liz Truss as a lettuce.

Once the election campaign was underway, it took a healthily sceptical approach to everything that was said, shunning almost all spin and focusing on the actual events in tabloid-sharp page two news stories. It jokingly “endorsed” Count Binface in the closing stages, but turned serious on election day with a ruthless Malcolm Tucker-meets-Jonathan Pie (with the expletives softened) takedown of the Conservative years.

And so our jokiest daily proved to be the most balanced and the most incisive.


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