How the press has failed to represent the public mood over Leveson
Where the Sun leads, the public follow? Not quite…
In the past five months there have been eight consecutive opinion polls that flatly contradict the editorial position taken by the overwhelming majority of British national newspapers on press regulation. In all, eleven polls out of a total of thirteen have gone against the press’ line on statutory underpinning. This is despite consistent opposition to the Leveson Inquiry, the Report, and now the Royal Charter over the past eighteen months.
A YouGov poll published on Tuesday night indicated that public support for the all-party Royal Charter to underpin press regulation (43 per cent) significantly outweighs fears of politicians curbing free speech (27 per cent). Hardly a landslide, but a clear deviation from the deluge of negative coverage from large sections of the press. Support for directed corrections and exemplary damages for non-members was unequivocal, while only one-quarter of respondents approved of the sabre-rattling of major newspaper publishers threatening to boycott the new regulator, with 43 per cent believing that every major publisher should join the “necessary” new system.
You would be forgiven if you missed it – the sum total of coverage in the press was a single passing mention in the Guardian. This is entirely consistent with the rest of the newspaper industry’s stifling of inconvenient polling results on press regulation (nearly all of them, as it happens) over the past year. The press’ professed guardianship of the rights, freedoms and best interests of the British people on the issue of press regulation ring a little hollow when public opinion is ignored so completely.
The omission of polling has been evident since the middle of 2012, when polls by the Institute for Public Policy Research (in May) and Hacked Off (in October) – showing 62 per cent and 78 per cent support for a new regulatory system backed by law respectively – were largely ignored beyond the Guardian and Independent.
For a brief period the embargo was lifted, when polls by the Sun and the Free Speech Network indicating lower support for statutory underpinning gained industry-wide coverage and several laudatory articles. While the Independent noted disparities in the reporting of polling up to this point, normal service was resumed when a Media Standards Trust/YouGov poll found 79 per cent support for legal backing and broad support for the Leveson Inquiry – data dismissed as ‘misleading’ by the Daily Mail.
Silence descended again immediately after the publication of the Leveson report, when a YouGov poll commissioned by the Sunday Times inconveniently confirmed what most earlier polls had shown: that the majority of the public (58 per cent) wanted regulation underpinned by law to prevent a return to the abuses that led to the Leveson Inquiry in the first place, and believed that the government should have implemented the central recommendations of the Report.
These results were not published by the Sunday Times, but fortunately British Polling Council guidelines dictate that polling companies must publish all the data from any poll commissioned by a national or regional media organisation. This allows the public to scrutinise the polling that has not been given a place in the debate, including those results that newspapers neglect to publish.
Following another Media Standards Trust poll in February, ignored by all but the Guardian (and a mention in the Independent), YouGov replicated the Sunday Times poll questions last week, again showing a majority desire for legal underpinning (55 per cent), with opposition unchanged at 26 per cent. Again, this went unreported.
Curiously, the Sunday Times revisited Leveson polling voluntarily last weekend after cross-party talks on the new regulator broke down, subtly re-worded the “new laws” question and got a more favourable result. Again, however, this aspect of the poll went unreported, perhaps because the public stubbornly ignored the warnings of the press and favoured the Labour/Lib Dem Royal Charter plan underpinned by law, rather than the more press-friendly Conservative plan.
Since last summer coverage of press regulation by national newspapers (with the honourable exceptions, most of the time, of the Guardian, Independent and FT) has been far from reflective of the public mood, as demonstrated in poll after poll. While this alone discredits press claims to be speaking on behalf of the British public on regulation, the systematic omission of inconvenient polling data strikes a further blow to the credibility of many newspapers to report fairly on the issue.
A chronological list of Leveson-related polls, 2012-2013:
YouGov, 10-11 March 2013 (pdf)
YouGov, 19 March 2013 (pdf)
Gordon Ramsay is Research Fellow at the Media Standards Trust