Failure to notice Clegg’s imminent defeat was because the media was distant from reality

Driver, take me to Europe.

Unless you were living under a rock last week, you will have noticed that Nick Clegg lost his seat in Sheffield Hallam.

The remaining member of 2010’s ‘quad’ has departed Parliament. The person for whom so much ire was directed after the tuition fee raise debacle, blamed for everything bad in the coalition and written out of history by the Tories over his involvement in raising the tax free allowance and universal free school meals. Unfair, perhaps, but it’s easy to forget that much like Blair after Iraq, Clegg clung on in the election that was supposed to be his reckoning, 2015.

One thing that’s surprised this publication since was how the media failed to see this coming.

It would be unfair to lump ‘the media’ into one catch-all basket. They’re not. In an area like Sheffield, The Star is likely to have more of an ear to the ground than the Guardian or Telegraph. 

However, the consensus at the count on Thursday night amongst the media wasn’t that the former Deputy Prime Minister was about to be pushed onto his sword. Rather, prominent media organisations continued to insist that Clegg’s seat was safe.

Bemusing. Not only did the vast anecdotal evidence and reports from candidates point towards a win for Labour’s Jared O’Mara, as did the data. Both Ashcroft and YouGov were suggesting a Cleggxit. Having reported from the constituency in the previous weeks and spoken to voters, many of them not in Corbyn’s apparent youth surge, it was clear that something was in the water.

The reason many in the media at the count first thought that Clegg was safe was because they had spoken to Clegg’s team. They weren’t remotely worried. This seat was safe as far as the Liberal Democrats were concerned. Perhaps why Clegg was rarely seen in Sheffield, if at all.

This impression rang true from an approach South Yorkshire Briefing made to Clegg ahead of the election for an interview, only to be told that he was too busy. Within days he was appearing at events in London. For what it’s worth, it is becoming apparent that Clegg nor his team saw this coming even though local Liberal Democrat sources admitted suspecting something was happening for Labour early on.

It wasn’t just something, though, what happened was a 4,000 vote swing. It was 2017’s Ed Balls defeat. He wasn’t edged out, he was thumped out.

The failure to realise Clegg was on his electoral knees is the same as the reason the media didn’t see the 2015 election result, nor saw the Brexit vote. The Guardian’s John Harris is perhaps one of few journalists who goes out and speaks to the people making the decision in an election. It’s to be commended, but for how much longer will the media shy away from speaking to voters in favour of a phone call with someone inside a campaign?

The more this happens, the more the press will be blind to events like Brexit in advance. South Yorkshire Briefing got the call right beforehand, and it’s another vindication of an age-old journalistic truth that appears to be dormant. You have to speak to the people, to get any idea of what’s going on. Long live vox populi, the media needs you now more than ever before.

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