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Reading, TV watching and politics in Britain
Richard Hanania has written another fascinating article about US political culture. This one’s titled ‘Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV’, and the basic thesis is right there in the title. He argues that “liberals live in a world dominated by the written word, while conservatism is something of a pre-literate culture”. That sounds a bit mocking, and it is; but Hanania leans more right than he does left (“I disagree with liberals about almost everything”, he says), so individuals of a non-leftist persuasion should take what he has to say seriously.
He cites ample evidence that, compared to “liberals”, conservatives consume more spoken-word sources of news, and also that they place more trust in such sources. For example, Republicans rely on Fox far more than the Wall Street Journal (the main right-leaning newspaper). And they distrust most other written sources. Democrats, by contrast, consume many written sources, and they actually trust the Wall Street Journal more than Republicans, even though it leans to the right. Building on these basic differences, Hanania constructs an entire theory of political activism – one which construes liberals as more ideological and, ultimately, more successful.
A question that naturally arises whenever someone attempts to explain the disparate behaviour of leftists and rightists is: Are the differences rooted in psychology? Or, alternatively, Are they culturally and socially contingent? Hanania is fairly clear on this point; the differences are rooted in psychology. He writes:
I don’t think that conservatives and liberals are the way they are because media sources made them that way. Markets have emerged to speak to two classes of people. The fact that one side reads and the other watches TV reflects the fact that there are two broad psychological profiles at work.
However, he allows for the possibility that the differences have become larger over time, noting that although “the split between the TV watchers and readers” was already there in the Clinton era, it has since become “much more extreme”. Another caveat Hanania makes is that he’s referring primarily to elites, rather than to the disengaged masses. “This is a theory about the political class,” he notes, “the community of journalists, activists, informed voters, and politicians on each side.”
As I said, it’s a fascinating article. But I’m not convinced. And I’m not convinced for the same reason that I wasn’t convinced by one of Hanania’s earlier (and equally thought provoking) articles: his argument can’t explain Britain.
If there really are “two broad psychological profiles at work”, you’d expect the differences to show up in Britain too. They might not be the same size, but you’d still expect them to be there. However, as I will argue in the remainder of this article, there’s no obvious left-right difference in preference for the spoken versus written word in Britain. Rightists are no more inclined toward TV watching; and leftists are no more inclined toward reading. (If anything, it might be the reverse.)
The graphic below, taken from the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019, shows weekly usage of different news sources in the UK. (I used the 2019 report to avoid possible “pandemic effects” in 2020.) The BBC dominates both and on- and offline news. It is particularly dominant in TV and radio: 68% of people use it at least once per week. The most popular newspapers in Britain both on- and offline are the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Guardian and the Mirror. (A broadly similar picture emerges from the OfCom News Consumption Survey; see p. 87.)
Which way do these sources lean politically? For the newspapers, determining slant is quite easy. The Daily Mail, the Sun, the Telegraph and the Express all lean right, whereas the Guardian, the Mirror, the Huffington Post, and the Independent all lean left. I’d say the Times is slightly right-of-centre (it endorsed Boris Johnson in 2019). And I’d call the Metro and the London Evening Standard fairly centrist. Looking at the chart above, there are no obvious left-right differences in usage of newspapers (i.e., reading.)
For the TV channels, determining slant is somewhat harder. One way to do it is by asking people which news sources they used in the past week, and where they’d place themselves on the left-right spectrum. The slant of each source is then equal to the average position of its audience. The Reuters Institute did this for its 2017 report. Results are shown in the chart below. (In addition to asking about left-right position, they also asked about populism, which to some extent captures socially conservative views.)
Unfortunately, only the BBC and ITV are labelled; Sky News and Channel 4 are not. (However, Channel 4 news is widely acknowledged to have a left-wing slant.) Overall, the BBC’s audience is slightly left-of-centre and less populist than average. ITV’s, by contrast, is right-of-centre and more populist than average. This conforms to my general impression of the BBC’s journalism (I never watch ITV since I don’t have a television).
Another way to determine slant is by asking people whether they believe a certain outlet is more favourable to the left or the right. YouGov has done this for the four major TV channels: BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4. Each source’s slant can be calculated as the percentage who believe it’s more favourable to the left minus the percentage who believe it’s more favourable to the right. Using this metric, results are as follows: BBC +6%, ITV +3%, Sky –4%, Channel 4 +18%. The figure for the BBC is in agreement with the diagram above. However, the figure for ITV is not. I would suggest the diagram is more accurate in this case.
Additional evidence of the BBC’s slight left-wing tilt is the fact that it’s criticised far more often by right-wing pundits than by left-wing pundits. Indeed, conservatives are constantly calling for the BBC to be privatised, whereas such calls are almost never heard from the left. This would be rather surprising if the BBC didn’t have at least a slight left-wing tilt.
Overall then, two of the major TV channels lean left (the BBC slightly, and Channel 4 substantially). And two of the major TV Channels lean right (though both only slightly). This suggests, as with newspaper reading, that there are no obvious left-right differences in TV watching. And given the dominance of the BBC in TV and radio, its left-wing slant would tend to suggest that British leftists have a slightly stronger preference for the spoken word.
As a brief aside, I came across a Pew Research survey from 2018, which found that “users on the right” placed the BBC substantially right of centre on a 7-point left-right scale. However, I simply can’t believe this result, and it must be attributable to some methodological issue, such as respondents misunderstanding the question. Not only is it inconsistent with both findings above, as well as decades of British punditry, but the same survey found that “users on the right” rated Huffington Post as more right-wing than left.
In addition to the newspapers mentioned above, there are numerous popular right-leaning magazines and blogs, such as The Spectator, UnHerd, The Critic, Standpoint, the Conservative Woman, Guido Fawkes, Conservative Home, and the Daily Sceptic. There are of course various left-wing equivalents, such as the London Review of Books, the New Statesman, Private Eye, Left Foot Forward, Labour List, Novara Media and the Canary. However, I don’t believe those on the left outnumber those on the right in terms of total readership, and it may in fact be the opposite.
Richard Hanania has argued, “liberals read, conservatives watch TV”. Moreover, he believes that this difference, which is clearly evident in the US, reflects “two broad psychological profiles”. If his theory were true, the difference ought to be evident in Britain as well. But it appears not to be. Here, there’s no obvious left-right difference in preference for the spoken versus written word. British leftists and rightists read and watch TV about the same amount. (The right might even watch slightly less TV.) This casts doubt on Hanania’s theory of political activism, or at the very least suggests that it’s culturally contingent.
Image: Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation
The Daily Sceptic
I’ve written six more posts since last time. The first criticises a viral tweet claiming that the UK should have just copied Korea. The second asks why we’re still talking about infection rates. The third criticises an article titled ‘Capitalism is killing the planet’. The fourth argues that there’s no better term than ‘woke’ for the phenomenon to which it refers. The fifth notes that Neil Ferguson inadvertently made the case for focused protection. The sixth reports on a cost-benefit analysis carried out by the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, which found that the costs of lockdown far outweighed the benefits.
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