As the London mayoral election race heats up, research produced jointly by the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London and the Media Reform Coalition has found clear editorial bias in the only London-focused newspaper, the Evening Standard.
The researchers analysed every article relating to the campaign over a two-month period (February 8 to April 12) and found that the headlines were almost twice as likely to favour Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate, over Sadiq Khan, the Labour candidate.
Between February and April, Khan attracted twice as many negative headlines as his Conservative rival, and nearly all the negative headlines relating to Khan came within the first ten pages of the paper where they would be most likely to be seen. Three of them were on the front page.
With a circulation of more than 900,000 copies per day, the Standard has an estimated readership of 1.5 million.
“Newspapers are free to campaign for any candidate but where there is only one London-focused newspaper, which is handed out free to commuters across the transport network, editorial bias could have an undue influence on the outcome of the election or deepen distrust in journalism,” said Goldsmiths’ Professor Angela Phillips.
“This research demonstrates the need for a more plural news media."
Justin Schlosberg, chair of the Media Reform Coalition said: "The Evening Standard appears to have been operating as the mouthpiece of the Conservative party, reproducing almost verbatim 13 out of a possible 15 news releases. Only three out of eight Khan campaign news releases were covered at all."
Guilt by association
The three longest negative Khan stories covered two pages each and were devoted to attempts to connect him, by association, to people with extremist backgrounds.
One was headed: “Exposed: Sadiq Khan's family links to extremist organisation.” The ‘link’ was his ex-brother in law’s supposed connection to an extremist organisation some 20 years ago.
Another headlined on the front page, "MINISTER: KHAN IS UNFIT TO BE MAYOR" and focussed on Khan’s supposed connection to Suliman Gani, an Imam in his Tooting constituency. The two men are known to be very publicly at odds over the subject of, among other things, gay marriage (which Khan has supported).
Although both articles contained comments refuting the basis on which they were written, these ‘rebuttals’ were not given equal prominence and would not have been noticed by anyone reading the paper at speed. The headlines in both cases suggest that Khan has links to extremist organisations. However no link was established in either article.
Tax problems not a problem
The two biggest negative stories for Zac Goldsmith related to his tax affairs. Both of these stories were on page 10 in spite of the fact that offshore investments and tax issues are subjects that have attracted a great deal of press coverage elsewhere over this period. In both cases the Goldsmith rebuttals were given equal prominence and favourable treatment in editorials.
13 out of 15 official news releases from the Goldsmith campaign during the period were published as news stories in the paper, reproducing headlines from the news release virtually verbatim. In contrast, only three out of eight news releases from the Khan campaign were covered.
The bias was clearly editorially directed. There was a fairly even spread of articles relating to the two candidates. The bias was found in the placing of the articles, the headlines and the article structure. For example, one story about Zac Goldsmith’s failure to declare his expenses over a fairly long period of time was spun around to become a story about Khan’s expenses.
The bias was far more marked in the way in which news stories were headlined and placed than in the treatment of comment and features where most headlines were neutral even when the story content favoured one candidate over another.
Download the full report at www.mediareform.org.uk