Oscar Wilde famously described fox-hunting as ‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible’. As far as many voters are concerned, when MPs debate how to rein in newspapers following the publication of Leveson’s report, it will be a case of the unspeakable in pursuit of the incredible.
In general, the public trust neither politicians nor journalists. It is this double distrust that informs the results of three Leveson-related surveys that YouGov has recently conducted. One was for the Sun, which wants to maintain some kind of self-regulation; the other two have been for organisations critical of self-regulation: The Media Standards Trust (MST) and the Hacked Off campaign.
The degree of distrust towards newspapers is clear from our survey for the Hacked Off campaign. Among other questions, we asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with these statements:
‘After the phone hacking scandal it is no longer acceptable for newspaper owners and editors to control the system for dealing with complaints about press behaviour.’ Agree 77%, disagree 5%, neither/don’t know 17%
‘Free speech is too important to let anyone regulate the press except the newspaper editors and owners themselves.’ Agree 23%, disagree 41%, neither/don’t know 36%
‘We can trust newspaper editors to ensure that their journalists act in the public interest.’ Agree 8%, disagree 71%, neither/don’t know 21%
In the light of those results, the following figures from our survey in the past week for the MST can scarcely come as a surprise:
Q. Which of the following statements comes closer to your view on how you think newspapers in Britain should be regulated?
There should be an independent body, established by law, which deals with complaints and decides what sanctions there should be if journalists break agreed codes of conduct – 79%
Newspapers should establish their own body which deals with complaints and decides what sanctions there should be if journalists break agreed codes of conduct – 9%
Neither/don’t know – 12%
Game over? Not so fast. Consider the following questions that we asked on behalf of the Sun:
Q. Thinking about how the press are regulated in the future, who would you most like to see regulate newspapers and the press?
A regulatory body set up through law by parliament, with rules agreed by MPs – 24%
A regulatory body set up through legally binding contracts by the media industry, with rules agreed by newspaper owners – 42%
Neither/don’t know – 35%
Q. Generally speaking, which of the following best reflects your view?
It is vital for our democracy that a free press is protected. Whatever the failings of a few journalists, statutory regulation set up by politicians would risk damaging our press freedom - 43%
The behaviour of our press and journalists has gone too far and they can longer be trusted to set up their own regulatory system, parliament should act to introduce proper legal regulation – 36%
Neither/don’t know – 21%
Those figures suggest that only a minority of voters want MPs to decide how journalism should be regulated. So what is going on? Four in five voters want ‘an independent body established by law’ to regulate journalism – but only 24% want ‘ a regulatory body set up through law by parliament, with rules agreed by MPs’. How do we reconcile these two apparently contradictory findings, given that they amount in practice to the same proposal?
I believe the solution to this conundrum has two components.
First, the MST question refers to ‘independent’ and ‘law’, but makes no mention of MPs. In contrast the Sun question refers to ‘parliament’ and ‘MPs’ but does not contain the word ‘independent’.
Second, the proposed alternatives sound different. In the case of the question for MST, the rival option is for ‘newspapers to establish their own body’. The question we asked for the Sun offers ‘a regulatory body set up through legally binding contracts’.
In short, it is a matter of framing. We don’t like the idea of politicians curbing the freedom of speech; but neither do we want editors and publishers remaining in charge of regulation.
Ideally, we would like a new law to force the media to behave better – but don’t want MPs making that law. The trouble with that, of course, is that law-making is the central function of MPs. More than anything else, that is what we elect them to do. The reason for the apparent inconsistencies in our attitudes to press regulation flow from our distrust in politicians as a breed, which rivals the distrust that most of us have towards the press.
What, then, do these polls really tell us about the way forward for press regulation? Taking into account all the questions we asked in these three surveys, the message seems to be this:
1. The public reject the current system of self-regulation. I hate the hackneyed phrase, ‘the status quo is not an option’. (It is almost always an option, and often the best option.) This time, however, the status quo really won’t do.
2. A new system of regulation must be effective. That is, it must provide a strong deterrent not only to journalists breaking the law, but to them intruding unreasonably into people’s lives and/or presenting news in a shoddy, tendentious, distorted or inaccurate manner.
3. For that deterrent to carry credibility, the new system must (a) operate wholly independently of editors and MPs and (b) threaten substantial punishments, such as large fines, to be meted out to transgressors.
4. The new system must allow victims to obtain adequate redress swiftly and easily (unlike, say, the laws of libel, which can only be accessed by the rich and take months or years to enforce).
5. The new system must protect the right of newspapers to investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, illegality and hypocrisy by powerful people in both the public and private sphere.
If the new system passes all five tests and is shown to be both effective and independent, then the narrow issue of whether it technically counts as ‘statutory’ regulation will, I suspect, start to fade away.