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

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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

“Given the loss of Scotland, it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing a list 50 constituencies in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.