Media Representations of the Voter

© Tom Rogers, December 2016 (except for attributed materials, which are used under fair dealing)

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There is rarely any studied or thoughtful comment about the way that voters are represented in and by the media (and press). I would like to look at that subject here, and hope to expand this into a wider discussion about 'media representation' of voters. I think this is of current relevancy given there is now much talk among the elite about "containing populism"1 in light of the Brexit referendum result.

What follows are just some brief initial thoughts.

First, here is a satiric cartoon by Australian artist, Peter Nicholson, dated 2003 (about the time of the Iraq War, etc.):

Cynical Voter

This is the cynical voter.

Now contrast that with the following Spitting Image sketch from 1991, roughly a decade earlier:

There we have the "Stupid" Voter (really the credulous voter).

This was a few months before the 1992 general election. It plays on the thesis of 'Tory invincibility', which was fashionable among political scientists/psephologists at the time - for e.g. see 'Must Labour Lose?' by Mark Abrams and Richard Rose, etc. There was a genuine belief among many informed people that Labour could never win another general election (or at least, never 'win' a parliamentary majority), and various reasons for this were put forward. One of the reasons was the supposed innate conservatism of the southern English (maybe 'commercialism' would be a better term), which I suppose has a ring of truth to it, and it's that notion that probably led to sketches on Spitting Image like the one above.

So we can see a possible contrast between the two representations of public attitudes. The more recent one depicts the voter as cynical and knowing. The earlier clip from 1991 portrays the voter as "stupid", probably based on a crude Marxoid idea of false consciousness in the average voter. Thus, the cynicism has switched from the elite to the voter, or has it? There is certainly a cynical populism at work among voters.

On a recent edition (8th. December 2016) of the BBC's This Week programme2, one of the guests, Miriam Clegg (wife of former Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg), and a lawyer, activist and author, contrasted populism in Continental Europe and populism in Britain. She said that British populism tends to be led by the elite, whereas Continental populism tends to be independent of the elite. I find that quite a striking observation and had to mention it here.

Anyway, one thing I like (and admire) about the Spitting Image clip is the bit at the end with the turkeys. That, arguably, is more significant than the main part of the sketch. It's the media elite's dig at the "Stupid" Voter who is watching Spitting Image!



1. The World Today: Miriam González Durántez on Brexit
2. This Week: 08/12/2016