In UK election race, newspapers play politics

LONDON (AP) — Britain's general election is less than two weeks away, but it's not just the politicians and spin doctors out to sway the voters — the country's newspaper journalists have also jumped into the fray.

Unlike the United States, where many print reporters aspire to a measure of objectivity and media bias is seen as corrupting, many of Britain's most-read papers take sides — and aren't afraid to flaunt it.

"British papers are much more partisan than American ones," said John Lloyd, a contributing editor to the Financial Times. "For the tabloids it's very common (and) in the case of the other papers, you can see a bias to the left in The Guardian, and a bias to the right in The Times (of London) and The Daily Telegraph."

That political slant was in full view Friday, as the papers reviewed the performance of Britain's top three election candidates in their second live televised debate.

While commentators and academics generally said all three candidates held their own in the verbal sparring over foreign policy, you wouldn't know it from reading the papers.

The left-leaning Daily Mirror claimed that a "hapless" Conservative David Cameron had flopped "once again," while its right-leaning rival The Sun showed Cameron downing a beer to "toast his TV win." The Times claimed Cameron had inched ahead of Nick Clegg, whose breakout performance in last week's debate blew the electoral contest wide open. The Guardian, meanwhile, said Clegg had won.

Each drew on a variety of surveys to buttress their argument: The Guardian's ICM poll put Clegg ahead by a few points, although its small survey size meant the lead wasn't statistically significant. The Sun, meanwhile, used an Internet poll that put Cameron in the lead.

The Sun — Britain's most widely read daily — is a particularly important player. The paper itself claims to have swung Britain's 1992 election, and its endorsement of David Cameron late last year sent shudders across supporters of the governing Labour Party's Gordon Brown.

The paper — part of Rupert Murdoch's sprawling media empire — has been relentless in its attacks on Brown, using him and his party as target practice.

Trevor Kavanagh, a Sun political columnist and associate editor, had no apologies for the papers' coverage, saying the Labour Party's 13 years in power had disappointed a whole host of people.

"I do think Labour has brought this on their heads," Kavanagh said. "They have promised a lot and delivered very little. People put enormous faith in them and feel let down."

For a while, it seemed as if Cameron didn't need The Sun's support. His party was coasting ahead in the polls and seemed almost certain to win against a Labour Party reeling from infighting, a damaging expenses scandal, and the pressure of war in Afghanistan.

But the normal Labour vs. Conservative calculus was thrown out the window by Clegg's well-received performance in Britain's first ever U.S.-style debate. As his Liberal Democrats surged in the polls, threatening Cameron's lead, Britain's right-leaning press opened fire.

The Daily Telegraph, sometimes nicknamed the "Torygraph" for its perceived sympathy with the Conservative Party, put out a front page story alleging that he'd funneled money from businessmen into his personal bank account.

The populist Daily Mail, meanwhile, sent out a front-page, all-caps headline accusing Clegg of making a "Nazi slur on Britain." The Mail's piece drew on an eight-year-old article in The Guardian in which Clegg called on Britain to re-examine its attitude toward World War II. Lloyd, the director of journalism at the Reuters Institute in Oxford, said the piece had "no basis whatsoever."

"There were no Nazis and there was no slur."