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Leveson, Public Opinion and Some Unvarnished Facts

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An important part of the political battle following the publication of the Leveson report is to win over public opinion. YouGov has conducted the first post-publication survey for the Sunday Times.

First, given the controversies that have attended the polls that YouGov conducted beforehand, a word of caution. Public opinion is seldom simple. It deserves to be viewed with care and respect. The task of analysing survey results for insights into the public mood should not be confused with that of ransacking a gun store for ammunition to fire at a sworn enemy.

Here, then, is an unvarnished account of what we found. The numbered points show the key findings from all 14 questions we asked about Leveson for the Sunday Times. I have, however, reordered them in order to place the findings in groups that, I hope, help to make sense of our data. (Full details of all the questions, in the order they were asked, can be viewed here.)

General findings:

1. More people, though not an absolute majority, think that, overall, Britain’s press is a force for good (45%) rather than a force for bad (34%).

2. By three-to-one (68-21%) the public thinks the press needs ‘much tougher independent regulation with fines for newspapers that behave badly’. This view is even held by a majority (56%) of those who say that overall, Britain’s press is a force for good.

Findings on Leveson’s proposals:

3. We summarised Leveson’s proposal for new laws to underpin regulation, ‘approved and overseen by Ofcom, a government appointed body’. 58% think ‘new laws should be passed by MPs to encourage newspapers to join this new system of regulation’; 26% oppose new legislation.
 
4. By 54-31%, the public thinks Ofcom IS an appropriate organisation to ‘have a say in the system of press regulation’.
 
5. By 50-29%, people think Cameron was wrong to oppose Leveson’s proposals for new legislation; by 50-26%, people think Clegg was right to back Leveson’s proposal.
 
6. By a large margin (73-13%), voters think that “all government ministers and senior politicians should have to publicly declare all their meetings with newspaper owners and editors”.
 
7. However, the public is more evenly divided, on whether journalists’ exemption from the Data Protection Act should be ended. 41% say it should be ended; 30% say the exemption should be kept; 29% don’t know.
 
8. The public also divides three ways on the Rubicon-versus-brook controversy. 21% think that ‘giving the state a role in press regulation’ is a ‘major and worrying’ change; 25% think it is a “major and welcome” change; 32% think it is a ‘minor’ change.

Findings concerning the stance and role of politicians:

9. A majority, 52%, think MPs should NOT ‘have a say in the system of press regulation’, as this ‘threatens the principles of a free press’. 31% disagree. In other words, the centre of gravity of public opinion is for a new law to ensure that press regulation works – but for the regulation system itself to be designed and managed away from Parliament.
 
10. By 56-24%, people think Cameron opposes new legislation because ‘he does not wish to jeopardise his relationship with newspaper owners and editors’, rather than because ‘he believes in the principle of newspapers being free of any state regulation’.
 
11. Likewise, voters are suspicious of Miliband’s motives for backing new legislation, albeit by a narrower margin than for Cameron. By 46-32%, people think he is doing so because he wants to ‘undermine the coalition’ rather than because ‘he believes in protecting the victims of press behaviour’.
 
12. However, Clegg wins widespread support for his decision to make a separate statement from Cameron, presenting a different view on the case for legislation. 66% say he was ‘right; it is more important for him to say what he believes than to present a united front’, while just 22% say he was ‘wrong; as deputy Prime Minister he should have presented a united front with David Cameron’. Even a majority of Tory voters (54%) think Clegg was right rather than wrong to break ranks and say what he thought.

Findings concerning prospects for the future:

13. Voters are fairly evenly divided on the risk that future governments might use laws on the press ‘to control the media’. 47% think there is a ‘large’ or ‘fairly big’ risk; 41% think there is ‘not much of a risk’ or ‘no risk at all’.

14. On balance, though not by an absolute majority, voters think that under Leveson’s proposals, the press would remain (as he wants), ‘irrelevant, unruly and opinionated’. 43% think these qualities would survive, while 28% think they would not.

Those are the findings. Here are my conclusions.

Overall, most people back Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals, including that for legislation to underpin press regulation; but voters are wary about giving too much say to MPs; and they are suspicious of both Cameron’s and Miliband’s motives for the stands they took last Thursday. This confirms one of the messages from our previous polls: that both politicians and journalists have their work cut out to regain the trust of the public.

That said, public opinion is seldom fixed. Views about the precise policies needed to make things better may well evolve over time. In the weeks and months ahead, the arguments advanced by the differing camps will affect the way some, perhaps many, voters think. For what it’s worth, I expect the voices of the victims of press intrusion to carry most weight.

In the longer term, however, different forces will come into play. People will see what happens and judge by results. Does the new system work? If it is pure self-regulation without any new laws, does it make journalists behave better and penalise them when they behave badly? If new legislation is enacted, does it achieve its intended effect without putting Britain on the path to oppressive state regulation?

The answers, and the public’s response to them, will take years to evolve. Whatever system of press regulation emerges, YouGov will track the public mood and seek to make sense of it.  

See the full survey results and details here