New research demonstrates that the London Evening Standard has abused its monopoly position to produce a relentlessly pro-Conservative bias in its coverage of the London mayoral election.
The Standard is the only newspaper that covers the whole of London and its editor, Sarah Sands, maintained in an interview recently that it would be "scrupulous" in giving the two main candidates equal coverage in the run-up to the London mayoral elections on 5 May.
Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London, in conjunction with the Media Reform Coalition, analysed every article, relating to the mayoral campaign, over a two-month period (8 February to 15 April).
We found that the candidates have indeed been given almost equal coverage in terms of the numbers of articles but it is far from equal in the way the candidates have been treated.
The newspaper reproduced, almost verbatim, 13 out of a possible 15 news releases sent by Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith. Only three out of eight campaign news releases sent by the Labour candidate, Sadiq Khan, were covered.
We also found that the Labour candidate had attracted twice as many negative headlines as his Tory rival. 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. Negative headlines about Goldsmith mostly got buried at the back.
The three longest stories attacking Khan were devoted to attempts to link him to extremism. 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 organisation some 20 years ago.
Another headlined on the front page: MINISTER: KHAN IS UNFIT TO BE MAYOR focussed on Khan's supposed connection to Suliman Gani, a controversial Imam from his Tooting constituency. Khan is well known to be at odds with the preacher over many issues, in particular gay marriage, which Khan supports. On the other hand Gani has himself now tweeted pictures of local Conservative politicians, and Zac Goldsmith in his company.
Goldsmith only attracted six negative headlines over the research period. Two of them related to his tax affairs. This was an important subject, but they only made it to page ten, in spite of the fact that offshore investments and tax issues have attracted a great deal of press attention elsewhere. In both stories the Goldsmith rebuttals were given equal prominence and he was given favourable treatment in editorials.
When it comes to positive headlines, the story is reversed. It is Zac who grabs the opening pages of the paper and Khan who is relegated to the back pages. With Zac attracting far more positive headlines than his rival.
The fact that the Evening Standard is a Conservative supporting newspaper will probably not come as much of a surprise to Londoners. Of course editors can back whoever they choose, but a truly free press depends on audiences having the opportunity to access an alternative view. London commuters don't have that choice. The only London focussed paper circulating for free on the transport network is the Evening Standard, with an estimated readership of 1.5million, and on most of the underground there is not even the choice of going online.
A report also released on Monday by the Centre for the Study of Media, Communication and Power at King's College, London, found that the problem of monopoly news providers is by no means confined to London. There are monopolies in 43% of Local Authority Districts in Scotland, England and Wales. In most of the LADs surveyed, these newspapers also provide a news monopoly online.
No single news organisation should have so much power to influence an election, in London or elsewhere.