We love the idea of punishing bad behaviour by the press - but public support for the principle of underpinning this by law is more muted.
Yesterday YouGov conducted the first survey of attitudes to Parliament's decision to back a Royal Charter to oversee a new system of press regulation. We questioned 681 adults between 10 am and 4pm - that is, after MPs had debated the matter and newspapers had responded to the all-party deal.
Among those who take sides, a three-to-two majority backs the Royal Charter; but with as many as 30% saying 'don't know', the results suggest that public opinion may not have settled down:
|Q. Parliament has voted to support a new system, governed by a Royal Charter, to regulate newspapers. Newspapers will not be forced to join the new system, but will have some advantages if they do (such as paying smaller damages when they are found guilty of libel). From what you know, do you think the vote to establish the new system is...|
|The right decision, as it should encourage newspapers to act more responsibly without curbing their ability to expose bad behaviour by the rich and powerful||43%|
|The wrong decision, as it is wrong in principle for politicians to have any say in the way newspapers operate and risks curbing free speech||27%|
However, when we tested two specific facets of the new system, the verdict was far more clear cut. Big majorities think newspapers SHOULD be directed where to print corrections when they publish inaccurate statements; and courts SHOULD have the power to impose bigger fines on papers that decide to remain outside the new system. And this time, the don't knows are much smaller. On these matters voters do seem to have made up their minds:
|Q Do you support or oppose these features of the proposed system of press regulation?|
|a) When newspapers print inaccurate statements, being told not just to publish correction but where to print them (e.g. so that a major front-page error has to be corrected on a future front page)|
|b) Giving courts the power to impose much larger fines on newspapers found guilty of libel, if they have chosen to stay out of the new system of regulation.|
A larger degree of uncertainty returns when people are asked whether they would approve or disapprove of a major newspaper group choosing to stay outside the new system in defence of the principle of free speech. Only one person in four say they would side with a refusnik publisher; but while substantially more people would condemn them, the proportion falls short of half the public. Once again, the high number of don't knows suggests that large parts of the public have not (yet?) engaged with the basic principles of what is proposed.
|Q. Some publishers of major national newspaper have yet to decide whether to join the new system. How would you feel about a publisher that chose NOT to join the new system?|
|Approve - they would be standing up for the principle of free speech||25%|
|Disapprove - the new system is necessary, and every major publisher should join it||43%|
Overall, these figures fit a pattern that YouGov surveys have detected throughout the phone-hacking, Leveson and regulation saga. Voters are appalled at many of the things that have been disclosed in the past two years. They feel strongly that newspapers must be forced to behave better than some have done in the past. However, there is less consensus when it comes to the role of politicians and Parliament.
Just now, in the aftermath of yesterday's debate and vote in the House of Commons, supporters of the Royal Charter clearly outnumber its detractors. But just as we have yet to hear the last word from a number of major newspaper groups, we have yet to hear the last word from their readers.