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: 

IPPR/YouGov, (fieldwork conducted on) 20-21 May 2012 (pdf)

Hacked Off/YouGov, 3-6 October 2012 (pdf)

Carnegie UK/Demos/Populus, published October 2012 (pdf)

Sun/YouGov, 4-5 November 2012 (pdf)

Free Speech Network/Survation, 12-13 November 2012 (pdf)

Media Standards Trust/YouGov, 21-23 November 2012 (pdf)

ITV News/ComRes, 23-25 November 2012 (pdf)

BBC Radio 5 Live/ComRes, 23-25 November 2012 (pdf)

Sunday Times/YouGov, 30 November – 1 December 2012 (pdf)

Media Standards Trust/YouGov, 31 January – 1 February 2013 (pdf)

YouGov, 10-11 March 2013 (pdf)

Sunday Times/YouGov, 14-15 March 2013 (pdf)

YouGov, 19 March 2013 (pdf)

Gordon Ramsay is Research Fellow at the Media Standards Trust

Photograph: Getty Images.

Gordon Ramsay is Research Fellow at the Media Standards Trust

Getty Images.
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George Osborne's surplus target is under threat without greater austerity

The IFS exposes the Chancellor's lack of breathing space.

At the end of the last year, I noted how George Osborne's stock, which rose dramatically after the general election, had begun to plummet. His ratings among Tory members and the electorate fell after the tax credits imbroglio and he was booed at the Star Wars premiere (a moment which recalled his past humbling at the Paralympics opening ceremony). 

Matters have improved little since. The Chancellor was isolated by No.10 and cabinet colleagues after describing the Google tax deal, under which the company paid £130m, as a "major success". Today, he is returning from the Super Bowl to a grim prognosis from the IFS. In its Green Budget, the economic oracle warns that Osborne's defining ambition of a budget surplus by 2019-20 may be unachievable without further spending cuts and tax rises. 

Though the OBR's most recent forecast gave him a £10.1bn cushion, reduced earnings growth and lower equity prices could eat up most of that. In addition, the government has pledged to make £8bn of currently unfunded tax cuts by raising the personal allowance and the 40p rate threshold. The problem for Osborne, as his tax credits defeat demonstrated, is that there are few easy cuts left to make. 

Having committed to achieving a surplus by the fixed date of 2019-20, the Chancellor's new fiscal mandate gives him less flexibility than in the past. Indeed, it has been enshrined in law. Osborne's hope is that the UK will achieve its first surplus since 2000-01 just at the moment that he is set to succeed (or has succeeded) David Cameron as prime minister: his political fortunes are aligned with those of the economy. 

There is just one get-out clause. Should GDP growth fall below 1 per cent, the target is suspended. An anaemic economy would hardly be welcome for the Chancellor but it would at least provide him with an alibi for continued borrowing. Osborne may be forced to once more recite his own version of Keynes's maxim: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.