A new report shows that the public do not trust the ethics of tabloid newspapers and have strict views on “public interest” and illegal information gathering.  It also shows strong public support for an independent regulator to decide issues of public interest.  The report, Voicing the Public Interest: Listening to the public on press regulation was published on Monday 22 October 2012 by the Carnegie UK Trust. 

The research included a poll of more than 2,000 people to explore public attitudes to the press, regulation and to the public interest.  The report was the product of a joint project by the Carnegie UK Trust and Demos.

The report suggests that only a small proportion of the public trusts the “Sun”, the “Daily Mirror” and the “Daily Mail” to act ethically and in the public interest.  The contrast between “tabloids” and broadsheets is striking.   The majority of respondents do not trust the “Sun” and the “Daily Mirror” to operate in an ethical manner and nearly 50% do not trust the “Daily Mail”.  However, more than 50% trust the “Times”, the “Financial Times” and the “Guardian” to act ethically and nearly 50% trust the “Daily Telegraph”

On public interest, the survey asked a complex series of questions involving combinations of what,  the story was about,  who it was about and how the information was obtained: : the “what”, “who” and “how” questions. The survey constructed, in total 90 different scenarios employing these three variables and put them to the public, asking whether a story containing these specific features should be published.  As one of the report’s authors Chris Tryhorn points out on the Demos Blog

“in only 15 cases did at least 50 per cent of the public back publication. That reveals a reluctance to publish that makes the public look considerably more cautious than current norms dictate. It also underlines widespread concerns about the harm that intrusive journalism can do”.

The question of “what”, unsurprisingly, the public’s willingness to back publication increased for stories that involved a tangible impact on others in society. Stories about people’s sex lives inspired the lowest level of support for publication, while stories about people putting the health and safety of others at risk had the highest ratings

On the “who” question, people were more likely to support the publication of stories about people in positions of power and responsibility.  Respondents thought that members of the public should have the most protection, with MPs and local councillors the least. Celebrities were afforded less protection than the general public, though the public made little distinction between those who were famous by design (reality TV stars) and those who were famous as a by-product of their career (footballers or actors).

But the range was, surprisingly, narrow.  On “kiss and tell” stories obtained from friends and neighours, those who thought publication would be in the public interest range from less than 20% (members of the public) to just over 30% (MPs and councillors).

On the question of how information is acquired, there was a clear pattern of declining support for publication as the level of intrusion involved increased, with our scale moving from standard journalistic practice (interviews with friends and neighbours) to ethical and legal grey areas (going through the bins outside of someone’s house) to methods that are both illegal and highly unusual (entering premises illegally).

The means of information gathering made a significant impact on the public interest assessment of respondents.   Whereas over 60% thought it was in the public interest to publish a story about putting others at risk (whoever it was about) when information was gathered from friends and neighbours, this figure fell to between 40 and 50% if the information obtained from going through dustbins.  And only just over 20% thought that publication of the same story would be justified if the information had been obtained by entering premises illegally.

This report provides further support for the argument advanced in an Inforrm post last week that the judges may not be in tune with the public’s own view of the public interest – with the public taking a much stricter view, particularly in relation to illegal information gathering.

The report also some questions about attitudes to regulation.  It asked the question as to who should be involved in drawing up guidelines to define what the public interest means in practice.  A majority thought that journalists, editors or newspaper owners should not be involved in drawing up guidelines.  However, 63 per cent wanted the public to have some role.  There was a strong view in favour of an independent regulator being involved – with over 77% being in favour.

The report also asked the question as to who should be involved in making judgments on whether particular stories are in the public interest.  Again, there was a large majority against “staff employed by newspapers” being involved and a large majority in favour of an independent regulator.adjudicate on complaints, they most liked the idea a regulator funded by but independent of government: 77 per cent backed this option, while 58 per cent backed the idea of a regulator funded by but independent of the newspaper industry.

Chris Tryhorn summarised the report as follows:

Our findings led us to three broad conclusions. Firstly, that the public interest should be more clearly defined, potentially using our ‘what’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ as a starting point.

Secondly, that the press should become more transparent to become more accountable – consumers should be told exactly how a story was obtained, wherever it is possible to do that without compromising sources; and readers should be given a clearer voice within papers to raise questions and air complaints, for instance through readers’ editors.

Thirdly, that the public should have a stronger voice in press regulation and in determining the public interest – this could be through some kind of consumer panel embedded into the new regulatory architecture.

These modest steps might go some way to repairing the damaged bonds between newspapers and their readers. Any new regulatory system that follows on from the Leveson report needs to have legitimacy and to forge a meaningful connection with the public if it is to be seen as truly safeguarding the public interest.