Plaid an also ran in seven-horse race?

Stephen Cushion and Gordon Neil Ramsay suggest minor parties are being squeezed out of election coverage

When broadcasters revised the format of the TV leaders’ debates to include not four but seven political parties, it was a reaction to the UK’s fast changing political landscape. The original line-up included the three established major parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – as well as UKIP after being elevated to “major party” status by broadcast regulators during the EU election campaign. But Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to challenge this composition, arguing that if UKIP should be included so should other minor parties, such as the Greens.

Worried about the prospect of “empty chairing” the Prime Minster and being open to possible legal challenge, broadcasters soon responded by not only including the Greens, but the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The decision gave credence to predictions that the 2015 general election would see the end of the UK’s longstanding two-party system and witness a rise in the fortunes of the so-called minor parties.

Since a hung parliament is predicted to be the most likely outcome, including the possible leaders of potential coalition-building parties in the high profile TV debates seems a sensible way of allowing voters to better understand the choices they face on election day.

Two party squeeze

However, new research from the Media Standards Trust suggests that, far from the media reflecting the full range of political views competing to gain power at Westminster, eleven weeks prior to the general election the minor parties are being squeezed out of coverage. As Figure 1 illustrates, campaign coverage between 16-22 February in the most popular online news providers in the UK – from the BBC, to the Guardian, Daily Mail and Buzzfeed (see here for full sample and method) – overwhelmingly focused on the Conservative and Labour party.








In the 1,691 articles featuring parties that will appear on the TV leaders’ debates, the Conservatives appeared in almost three-quarters of coverage (73%) whereas Labour appeared in well over half (55.9%). Despite the party’s incumbency bonus, the Liberal Democrat’s shared equal prominence with UKIP (approx. 17%). The Greens, by contrast, featured in just 5% of articles examined – less than the SNP (8.4%) but substantially more than Plaid Cymru (less than 1%).

As Table 1 demonstrates, this imbalance was replicated across all news sources included in the analysis.  With only a couple of exceptions (Buzzfeed and the Daily Star, both of which published a small amount of articles referencing political parties), the parties split into three tiers based on the volume of articles in which they featured. Labour and the Conservatives typically featured in between one-half and three-quarters of articles in which any party was mentioned. The Liberal Democrats and UKIP appeared much less often – usually between 10% and 20% of articles. The remaining minor parties – SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru – featured considerably less often, and in some news outlets not at all.

Table 1: Party coverage by publication (percentage of all articles containing references to one or more parties)

  Con Lab LD UKIP SNP Greens PC
Daily Mail (N = 316) 78% 51% 18% 12% 5% 4% 1%
Guardian (N = 172) 71% 66% 21% 13% 12% 7% 1%
FT (N = 49) 71% 63% 29% 14% 6% 2% 0%
Mirror (N = 98) 78% 62% 17% 17% 1% 3% 0%
Sun (N = 77) 66% 60% 10% 19% 4% 1% 0%
Times & ST (N = 145) 79% 58% 15% 17% 6% 4% 1%
Telegraph (N = 203) 75% 57% 18% 18% 13% 6% 0%
Independent (N = 150) 70% 55% 14% 23% 9% 8% 1%
Express (N = 98) 79% 42% 11% 18% 13% 2% 0%
Daily Star (N = 23) 61% 35% 9% 26% 0% 4% 0% (N = 147) 61% 52% 24% 14% 18% 7% 1% (N = 32) 53% 56% 13% 13% 9% 0% 0% (N = 13) 85% 31% 8% 8% 8% 8% 0% (N = 48) 81% 52% 15% 13% 10% 6% 0%
Buzzfeed UK (N = 14) 57% 71% 7% 43% 21% 0% 7%
HuffPo UK (N = 106) 73% 64% 20% 25% 1% 10% 0%

It is, of course, difficult to reach any clear conclusions about election coverage based on a week’s analysis. But the Media Standards Trust’s cumulative analysis of coverage over seven weeks reinforces the Conservative and, to a lesser extent, Labour dominance of campaign reporting (see Figure 2).

For the seven week period between January 5 and February 22, the balance of coverage between the seven parties was broadly similar to the seven-day period shown in Figure 1. Once again, the Conservatives dominated, appearing in over three-quarters of articles (75.8%) featuring any party, while references to the Labour Party made up over half of coverage (55%).  The Lib Dems featured in just over one-fifth of news (21.6%), and the UKIP figures show that Week 7 was a good one for them – on average, they appeared in just 14.6% of articles in Weeks 1-7. While the aggregate figures for the three minor parties – the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru – were slightly better than in Week 7, they still appeared far less than the two major parties.








Cameron the most visible leader

Since political parties today are increasingly defined by their leaders – exacerbated by the significance paid to the TV debates – their prominence in coverage can reveal an agenda setting power. When isolating the reporting of the seven leaders taking part in the TV debates between 16-22 February (Figure 3), David Cameron alone appeared in almost two-thirds (63.3%) of articles in which any leader was featured, whereas Ed Miliband appeared in roughly a third less than the Prime Minster (39.7%)

Beyond the two major parties, Nigel Farage (17.2%) appeared to a far greater extent than Nick Clegg (8.2%), reinforcing the widespread perception that UKIP’s electoral success lies in its media savvy leader. While Nicola Sturgeon’s media prominence (4.9%) was not far behind Clegg, the Green Party’s Natalie Bennett and Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood just managed to scrape 1% between them.

Needless to say, over the next ten weeks or so parties – and their leaders – will enjoy highs and lows in media coverage. Natalie Bennett’s car crash interview on LBC radio last week(shortly after the period analysed by the Media Standards Trust), for example, temporarily pushed the Greens up the campaign agenda. But the episode was short lived as debates about cash for access between Labour and Conservative took centre stage. Moreover, while many candidates will face awkward moments and campaign set- backs, it is arguably the daily drip of news about parties’ policy positions and their credibility in election reporting that will most influence the electoral outcome.

In this respect, according to both the Media Standards Trust’s snapshot weekly picture of coverage as well as the cumulative seven week analysis, the opportunities for the minor parties to pitch their polices and layout their vision for the future appear limited. While the latecomers to the TV debates – the SNP, Plaid and Greens – can use this platform to even up the contest, in day-to-day coverage they are currently being squeezed out of the campaign on the most popular UK online news sites. Far from the 2015 general campaign turning into a seven-horse race, the longstanding two-party dominance of Conservative and Labour remains firmly intact.

Stephen Cushion is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University. Gordon Neil Ramsay is a Research Fellow at the Media Standards Trust and a Visiting Research Fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London

14 thoughts on “Plaid an also ran in seven-horse race?

  1. I’m not quite sure what the scandal is here. Plaid have 3 seats, they had half of 1% of votes last time round and are unlikely to get much more than that. They won’t be a big player in post-election deals (unlike the SNP) and they’re not going sweep Wales before them (unlike the SNP in Scotland). The most impact they are going to make is winning Ceredigion. To the vast majority of the UK, they are an irrelevance– why would the UK national media give them much coverage?

    Frankly, it is confusing why they are involved in the debates at all. Given that healthcare and education in Wales are not in issue in this election, whatever Leanne Wood says about these things in the debate has no bearing on voters in any part of the UK in this election. I can see the logic of including them in a Foreign Affairs/Economy debate but one on healthcare and education? It’s not in issue for Wales in 2015.

  2. Perhaps more relevant in terms of controllable-content prime-time TV coverage is that OFCOM has now awarded UKIP major party status so it will be entitled to two party political broadcasts

    Plaid are simply not newsworthy – I can’t remember when they last said anything they haven’t said 1,000 times before. They sound like a worn out record because they are a worn out record! Red Plaid and Blue Plaid have stolen their policies, and they are in a position to implement them, so what are Plaid for? They have nothing new or fresh to justify media attention – perhaps a little scandal would help?

  3. Agree with anon and JRW. Plaid, and Wales in general, should have no voice in the TV debates. Who is interested? Scotland is important – think oil – but Wales is an irrelevance. I just wish the media would let us hear more about UKIP and its policies; but that’s the left-wing press for you.

  4. Don’t want to argue with the ‘Learned Professionals’ meaning the ‘Welsh Academics’ but noted one significant omission which is to look at the Welsh media and Wales where a minority party using a grandiose title of the ‘National Party of Wales’ (Plaid Cymru) probably gets 80% of ‘Welsh National Media Coverage’ especially by BBC Wales (An ‘independent public body’ that’s seems to be a breeding ground for the new generation of Plaid Cymru politicians) – Think about it!?

  5. This is a very helpful article – I hope there will be a running cumulative measure of party coverage throughout the election campaign.
    The analysis shows just how biased the media are against Plaid Cymru. Take the BBC, supposed to cover political parties fairly – just 1%, and no endeavour made by BBC Wales to redress the imbalance of the London-based media.
    The comments also reveal the familiar bias of the commentators. Plaid is very relevant to the debate – who else for example have highlighted the continuing funding injustice of the Barnett formula which contributes directly to the financial problems of our NHS and local authorities?

  6. If Wales is so irrelevant to British politics, why is the London government so keen to keep us in the union, and why do people in other parts of the union not wish to hear our opinion. Is it perhaps that they fear that the Welsh point of view might unsettle their cosy view of how the UK works.

  7. It’s because Wales doesn’t have the economic clout that it should, that its voice needs to be heard more than ever.

  8. Good grief. 3 big fans of Plaid here. So UKIP should have more coverage? You mean the party with one less MP than Plaid? In fairness, UKIP certainly appear to have a wide range of bizarre bigots standing for election.

  9. Jack. I have always been an admirer of your satire but I think it may be getting a touch too broad. It has to be plausible enough for a few idiots not to realise you are taking the mickey. i think your last post might have run out of idiots.

  10. The Westminster system along with the media is broken and incapable of repair. The BBC especially is now a state sponsored organisation. The Corporation’s bias in the Scottish referendum destroyed their reputation for integrity. And then there’s the Savile scandal…

  11. One thing you will hear less of from Plaid is the “I” word; they have gone from using it every other minute to a strange silence on the topic. Maybe it was that opinion poll that showed just 3% wanting Independence for Wales. Mind you, it’s rocketed up to 6% recently…..surely time to jump back on the bandwagon.

  12. Protic – Any evidence at all for this outlandish assertion? Don’t want to argue with the ‘Learned Professionals’ meaning the ‘Welsh Academics’ but noted one significant omission which is to look at the Welsh media and Wales where a minority party using a grandiose title of the ‘National Party of Wales’ (Plaid Cymru) probably gets 80% of ‘Welsh National Media Coverage’

  13. @J . Jones

    “One thing you will hear less of from Plaid is the “I” word; they have gone from using it every other minute to a strange silence on the topic.”

    Maybe it’s because a growing number of people – though not obviously journalists from the controlled media in Wales – keep asking Plaid how they propose to pay for the I word when Wales is running a double-digit annual deficit when total spending is taken into consideration? On that subject Plaid have also said the same thing a thousand times before – nothing! Their silence is deafening so how can the media report it? After all, the media don’t make the news they only report (and spin) what they are given.

  14. Now it has been confirmed that Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood will be debating at two of the leaders’ debates, I am delighted that Wales will have someone standing up for their nation at these high profile events. When so many policy areas are discussed on UK media from the England perspective, Leanne will be there to counter that bias.

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