Over the past few weeks the media has given its readers a consistently slanted and inaccurate picture of the nature of privacy injunctions and the interests which they protect. The impact of this reporting on public opinion is hard to gauge. The constant false statements about “super-injunctions” and the insinuation that “rich celebrities” are seeking to hide systematic wrongdoing is bound to have some impact on public opinion. An attempt to assess the current state of public opinion on these issues was made last week by the “Independent”. On 1 June 2011 it reported the result of a “ComRes” opinion poll under the headline “Judges have gone too far with gagging orders, says British public“. “The Independent” went on to tell its readers that
“The public believes that judges have been too ready to issue gagging orders to enable celebrities and rich business people to protect their privacy, an opinion poll for The Independent discloses today”.
It is interesting to look at the poll and its results in a little more detail. ComRes carried out a telephone survey of 1001 individuals on 27 to 29 May 2011. The full ComRes poll can be found here. The first 5 questions were about politics and voting. Question 6 was introduced as follows:
“Q.6 Thinking about super-injunctions, do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?“
This loaded introduction – equating all injunctions with “super-injunctions” – is followed by four statements with which respondents were invited agree or disagree.
The first statement was, “Judges have been too willing to grant injunctions to enable the rich and famous to protect their private lives“. The response was that 70% agreed. Bearing in mind the saturation media inaccuracy on the topic of injunctions it is perhaps surprising that only 70% agreed with the question posed. The formulation of the question is also relevant. What percentage would have agreed if the question had been “Thinking about court orders to protect privacy, do your agree or disagree with the statement “the judges have got it about right””?
The second statement was even more loaded “Celebrities and sports stars owe their lifestyle to their public profile so they should not complain about intrusion into their private lives“. Unsurprisingly, 65% agreed with this. Once again the formulation of the question clearly suggests the answer. If the statement had been – “Celebrities and sports stars have rights to privacy like everyone else” – then it seems likely a substantial proportion of respondents, perhaps a majority, would have agreed.
The third statement was posed from the opposite point of view – perhaps reflecting the views of the “Independent” – “The Government should ensure greater regulation of the internet and social media like twitter to protect people’s rights to privacy“. This time, despite the weeks of media glorification of the virtues of injunction breaking on Twitter – 54% of the respondents agreed (with 40% disagreeing and 5% “don’t know”). In other words, a majority favours regulation of Twitter and Facebook.
The fourth statement was “MPs and Peers who have used parliamentary privilege to reveal ‘super-injunctions’ were right to do so“. Once again, the question was posed in a misleading way – as readers of this blog are well aware, the only “super-injunction” revealed in Parliament was that relating to Trafigura in 2009 – the Goodwin and CTB injunctions were not “super-injunctions” at all. Despite the formulation of this question only 44% agreed with the statement (with 48% disagreeing and 9% don’t know). Again, it seems likely that a reformulated question – “MPs and Peers who have used parliamentary privilege to breach court orders without seeing the evidence were wrong to do so” – would have produced a large majority would have agreed.
The “Independent” survey appears to have been designed to prove a point. However, even against the background of the events of the past few weeks, with heavy hints and plentiful references to super-injunctions it is clear that a substantial proportion of the public has not bought into the media account of these issues. In 2009 a Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (discussed in our post here) suggested that most people continued to believe that sex and sexuality were essentially private. We suspect that, behind, the “privacy frenzy” very little has changed.