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Doug Saunders

The power of Britain's front page Add to ...

On Thursday, the British election took a turn into the sort of perilous terrain rarely visited in North American campaigns.

The Daily Mail, a newspaper that sells two million copies a day, ran an enormous headline: CLEGG IN NAZI SLUR ON BRITAIN. The article below suggested that Nick Clegg, the leader of the upstart Liberal Democrats and the surprise opinion-poll leader in the race for the May 6 election, has some sort of borderline Nazi sympathies.

You had to embark on a search to learn that the sole source for the article was an opinion piece Mr. Clegg had written in 2002 arguing that British tourists to Germany were embarrassing themselves by making Hitler salutes and telling Third Reich jokes.

When a politeness campaigner gets turned into a blackshirt, you know it's election time. Such headlines are the result of a more telling campaign, one that ended in October: The race to win the backing of the tabloid press.

In no other country, except perhaps India, do newspapers still carry such enormous influence over electoral politics. It is all beginning to change.

On Friday, the front pages were at it again. This time, the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Times (6.5 million copies sold between them) all ran banners in fist-sized typefaces declaring David Cameron the great victor in Thursday night's debate - even though some of their own viewer-opinion polls, and the stories below those headlines, described Mr. Clegg the clear leader.

Only the Guardian (300,000 copies), the Mirror (1.3 million) and the Independent (200,000) dared mention either Mr. Clegg or Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

That's because Mr. Brown lost, for the first time in 15 years, the Labour Party's link to the tabloids with the Sun's declaration in October, in giant letters, that "Labour's Lost It." Tony Blair had begun his electoral odyssey in 1995 by flying to Australia, as opposition leader, to hold a summit meeting with Rupert Murdoch, owner of the country's largest newspaper The Sun (3 million copies), and persuading him to switch the front-page allegiances from the Tories to Labour.

Keeping the Sun on board, often at embarrassing expense, was seen as the act that kept him in power; without the Sun and the Daily Mail and their millions of fickle and crime-obsessed readers, the vital, huge angry-middle-class vote would shift to the Tories.

"A significant proportion of the stories generated by Downing Street for the sake of headlines," says Lance Price, who was Tony Blair's press aide in the 1990s and has just confessed his sins in a book titled Where Power Lies, "were designed to suggest that New Labour understood and even sympathized with the socially conservative instincts of most of the tabloids." Voters in focus groups kept parroting Sun headlines, so the answer was to start sounding like a Sun headline.

Gordon Brown managed to keep the tabloids on side for a while. He went to surprising lengths to please the Daily Mail, because it was the paper he had used to attack Mr. Blair, whose chosen weapon was the Sun. But Mail readers tend to be staunch Tories, whereas Mr. Blair's Sun readers were beer-and-soccer-loving swing voters. "Brown," says Mr. Price, "was all tactics and no strategy."

He has lost the tabloids, but keeps playing their game. Mr. Brown, up to and including Thursday night's debate, has insisted that more and more police, tougher crime programs and more prisons are needed - even though crime rates have fallen in half and violent crime has dwindled dramatically. He could boast about this, a real accomplishment of his office - but instead he holds the noose, because this generates the badly needed tabloid splashes.

You might think that this reliance on the front page is a relic of some faded era that puts Britain a decade behind more modern, social-media-driven electronic cultures. In fact, it is the political face of our digital future.

Newspapers have such power in Britain because almost nobody subscribes to them. Most of them don't offer home delivery. Every day 20 million people go to their newsagent or the stand by the bus stop and choose from a lurid array of front pages.

Those front pages are the only thing that matters in the tabloid. People known as splash subs are paid fortunes to write the handful of giant words on the front page, for they are the paper's advertisement for itself. Those front pages become posters, unavoidable everywhere; a large part of British TV news is devoted to displaying and analyzing those front pages, and they form the main talking point in the digital media. Unlike actual campaign messages, you can't miss them.

Of course, the Internet works this way, too. We choose our outlets on the fly, based on the distractions and big letters thrown before us, linked, retweeted and cross-posted. Those who own the instruments that can capture the fleeting eye will be courted, shamelessly, by parties that hope to hold power.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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