The Blog

Media Policy and the People: Mind the Gap

Critics argue that with the rise of social media and click-driven news, we no longer live in a world where newspapers can dictate the public or policy agenda, or where owners can exercise the kind of editorial influence that can shape election outcomes.

"The past few years have seen the rise of shadowy executives who determine what truths can and what truths can't be conveyed across the mainstream media. The criminality of News International newspapers during the phone hacking years was a particularly grotesque example of this wholly malign phenomenon."

These are not the words of a media reform campaigner, or a green party activist, but the former political chief political commentator of the conservative-leaning Daily Telegraph. In publishing his resignation letter, Peter Oborne revealed a great deal about the endemic problems within our media that have been ignored by successive governments.

Last week, YouGov released polling data that showed strong public support for media ownership controls and a levy on the most profitable media giants to support local and investigative journalism. Most significantly, the poll demonstrates that people really do care about an issue that barely scratches the surface of the mainstream media agenda.

This begs the question: what would this poll have looked like if media ownership issues and policies attracted any meaningful degree of exposure in the media themselves? The standard response from editors and politicians alike is that media policy does not resonate with readers or voters to anywhere near the same degree as issues like immigration or the NHS. That might be true but many politicians also endorse the view that the press have a major influence on the public agenda. What is considered a 'doorstep issue' might therefore have something to do with what is, in fact, a front page issue.

And there lies a potentially critical flaw in our democracy. If the press are still able to dictate the issues that matter in a general election, and proprietors are still able to influence the editorial slant of their news outlets, then voters will never be adequately informed by the time they reach the ballot box. Indeed, this is itself one of the principle justifications for tightening controls on media ownership.

Critics argue that with the rise of social media and click-driven news, we no longer live in a world where newspapers can dictate the public or policy agenda, or where owners can exercise the kind of editorial influence that can shape election outcomes. There is some substance behind these arguments. Scratch below the surface headlines, and we find a groundswell of public resistance to concentrated media power. We saw it in the overwhelmingly sceptical comments of otherwise loyal readers when newspapers waged their campaign against the Leveson recommendations for modest press reform, or when the same newspapers rallied behind the state in defence of the its mass surveillance programmes revealed by Ed Snowden. We saw it in the very public backlash against the Daily Mail's shameful smear of Ed Miliband's late father. And of course, we saw it in the outpouring of public sympathy for the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, when it was revealed that her phone had been hacked by journalists in the hunt for a scoop.

But the really odd thing is that there remains a significant gap between public sentiment on a range of issues, and the policies endorsed by the major parties. Eighteen months ago, another YouGov poll suggested that most people supported economic policies to the left of Labour. Not surprisingly, that poll also made no impact on the mainstream media agenda. Indeed, the only polls that really matter to newspapers are the ones that they themselves routinely commission - especially ahead of a general election. These surveys of 'political attitudes' rarely reference policies but focus instead on personalities and leadership, offering newspapers a convenient means of side-stepping the complexities in policy debates as well as potential gaps between policies favoured by their readers, and those endorsed by their vested interests.

This might also help to explain why such obscure and unexpected results emerge when people are confronted with policies divorced from the party brands and personalities behind them. Such is the rationale underpinning one online voter application which has so far clocked up 133,000 surveys since its launch in February. According to their data, the Green Party ranks third among the parties on environment but first on foreign policy, whilst UKIP ranks a strong second on education, but fifth on immigration.

What seems clear from Oborne's letter is that the vested interests behind major media brands do still wield influence and control over their output, over politicians and potentially over audiences. Of course that influence is not total or without an element of struggle, but nor has it ever been. What has changed is the degree to which the intermittent mismatch between press and public priorities is exposed. Added to this, the enduring legacy of the phone hacking scandal means there is a historic opportunity for the next Parliament to make a determined break with the past and enact meaningful reform of media ownership policy.