Red Smoke billowing from the roof of The Sun's Wapping HQ signalled that Britain's best selling tabloid will tell its readers to vote Labour. The paper likes to claim an influence on the electorate, although many commentators have correctly pointed out that the paper more often follows voting trends than makes them. We need to look beyond the PR stunts, however, to assess the pernicious influence that the tabloids can have on the political debate.
First up, there is the role played by The Sun and other tabloids in setting the political agenda. Time and again in this campaign, immigration has emerged as a central issue of the election as politicians attempt to match the tabloids' ferocious appetite to discuss this 'problem' (a framing of the issue that is rarely challenged). But this is not simply a question of political responses to media agendas - it is also a reflection of the centrality of political marketing to the organisation of the major parties. The machinery of large PR departments, rabid rebuttal units, etc. is designed to feed off tabloid debate, rather than seeking to engage the general public (or, still less, party members) as active participants in the political process.
Secondly, The Sun and other tabloids play a vital role in 'framing' the way that political issues are discussed. To continue with the example of immigration, this means the familiar narrative of Britain as a 'soft-touch', the articulation of immigration to fears of terror, etc. to the exclusion of debates on the structural factors that influence population movements, such as the impact of neoliberal globalisation on job security and conditions in the Global South.
Instead of watching the smoke, then, we should be looking at how the tabloids create narratives about what kind of Britain we inhabit, and at how the restructuring of political parties adds fuel to their vindictive fires. OR