by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 31 March 2015

Just because newspapers have a particular political leaning, it does not mean they should be the mouthpiece of political parties.

AS soon as I landed in London last Saturday, I picked up a copy each of two newspapers at the airport. One was the Daily Telegraph and the other was the Guardian. These two used to be my daily read until about five years ago, when I moved back to Malaysia.

The Telegraph is known for leaning towards the centre right.

Typically its readers are more comfortable with the British Conservative Party. Its relationship with the party is a longstanding one, to the extent that it has earned the nickname The “Torygraph”, as the party is also called the Tory party.

The Guardian, on the other hand, is generally on the centre left. Most of its readers would usually vote for the Labour Party, while some may be with the Liberal Democrats Party.

Such is the nature of the British press. You can guess someone’s political leaning just by looking at the newspaper that they buy.

In fact, when I was knocking door to door to canvass voters during the 2007 English local elections and in the run-up to the 2010 British general election, one of the key questions I would ask was what newspapers they read. You would more or less know how they would vote, simply based on the answer they gave.

This is true of quite a few other British newspapers, actually. Not just the Telegraph and the Guardian.

Readers of The Independent are generally more comfortable with the Liberal Democrats although many people with classical liberal leanings in all parties may enjoy reading its opinion columns.

The Daily Mail is generally quite right wing and therefore its readers are more likely to vote Conservative. But the Daily Mirror is avowedly Labour and perhaps even more to the left than Labour Party itself.

I enjoy reading both the Telegraph and the Guardian because by combining the two I get a relatively good glance of how those in the centre – be it centre right or centre left – see a particular issue.

Reading just one would probably skew your views further in a particular direction. But in combination you get to at least see the “other” side too.

And of course a discussion about the British media would not be complete if we do not mention the British Broadcasting Corporation. Despite being funded primarily by an annual TV licence fee that is collected via the government, the BBC is a world leader when it comes to quality and reliability of its news reporting.

They clearly know that they get their money from people of different political leanings and the government is merely a conduit.

Going back to the other newspapers, I must add that just because the media have a particular political leaning, it does not mean they are the mouthpiece of political parties.

On the contrary, it is the political parties which usually take heed of what the newspapers say.

In some other countries newspapers act more like a newsletter for their political masters.

Whatever is done by the politicians on their side would be reported in a positive way, while those on the opposing side would be presented as if they are the enemies of the state.

But when you read a mainstream British national newspaper, you will see that even though the newspapers generally do have a political leaning, only in rare cases would you find reports that are manifestly one-sided in nature. Journalistic integrity is alive.

For example, last Saturday’s Conservative-leaning Telegraph had articles suggesting that David Cameron, the current Conservative Prime Minister, “got frightened” when trying to reform schools and “does not know” which direction he wants to take the country. The Labour-backing Guardian said that the Conservative-LibDem coalition has successfully delivered a “strong government” for Britain.

That integrity is why political leaders in Britain take their newspapers seriously. The newspapers act as an important bridge between politicians and the voters, while at the same time they can also influence their readers which way to vote.

It would be unthinkable for a politician in the United Kingdom, no matter how high his position is, to call up a journalist to persuade him or her about how a story is written or to censure an editor if he publishes an unflattering story.

If this were to happen, then the phone call itself is very likely to be a front-page headline in that newspaper. And you could even expect that the newspaper would initiate a campaign to force the politician to resign for abusing his public office.

But in less free countries, editors may shiver at the thought of getting that phone call, and politicians or their lackeys happily abuse their powers.

The British press will play an even bigger role in shaping the future British political landscape over the next few weeks. The Fixed-Term Parliament Act 2011 specifies that the next general election will be held on May 7, and that the British parliament will be dissolved 25 working days before that.

That means the British parliament was dissolved just yesterday, and official campaigning by all political parties has just started. The British media will be tested once again during this crucial period.

But as newspapers operating in a country where there is respect for freedom of speech, I suspect they will continue to report political differences with the integrity expected from the press.


Wan Saiful Wan Jan is Chief Executive Officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs 

Leave a comment