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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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories