the-sun-poll-200x150On Wednesday The Sun published the results of a YouGov poll about press regulation. The newspaper claims [£] that their poll shows that the public has “deep reservations about politicians’ ‘Ministry of Truth’ plans for Press regulation.”

This followed another YouGov poll commissioned by the Media Standards Trust, published on Monday, which indicated, among other things, that the public would lack confidence in a new system of self-regulation set up by the press that is not subject to any system of independent recognition or review.

It has been suggested that the two polls conflict. However, if the Sun poll is examined closely, it can be seen that:

  • the two polls are not mutually exclusive;
  • the public has been remarkably consistent in its views on press regulation over the past year;
  • most of the questions in the Sun poll were repeats from a year ago and are no longer relevant, and
  • the factual inaccuracies in some of the questions mean that they do not provide useful information.

It should be said that there is nothing inherently wrong in repeating polling questions – it allows measurement of how public opinion changes over time on a specific issue. However, any polling question, even a repeated question, has to reflect the context in which they are asked – especially if developments make repetition of the question lack relevance in the new environment. The Sun, it would appear, has opted to re-run questions from a period before any concrete proposals for regulating the press had even been suggested, in turn generating results that – while true to the questions asked – are irrelevant to our current situation.

The Sun’s Poll, then and now

Q1:  Thinking about how newspapers and the press are regulated, do you think current regulations are too tough, not tough enough, or that they get the balance about right?

– Current rules are too tough and the press should have more freedom: 8% (up from 6% in Nov 2012)
Current rules are not tough enough and should be tightened up: 47% (down from 50% in Nov)
– The current rules get the balance about right: 31%
Don’t know: 13%

This question has been asked four times in the last year, including The Sun’s November 2012 poll. In two, commissioned by The Sunday Times in November 2012 and YouGov itself (a re-run of the Sunday Times question) in March 2013, the results were 68% and 63% respectively in favour of “much tougher” regulation. In third, commissioned by the Media Standards Trust in July 2013, the result was 69%. The difference in wording may be significant here, and it is notable that the Sun result is markedly lower than the other three. However, on balance, all the polls indicate that the public believes that tougher regulation is preferable to either less tough regulation, or to the status quo.

Q2: 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 a Royal Charter, enforced by Parliament, with rules agreed by MPs: 25%
– A regulatory body set up through legally binding contracts by the media industry, with rules agreed by newspaper owners: 40%
– Neither: 19%
– Don’t know: 16%

This is a new question, and has two flaws. The first option is factually inaccurate, and the two options together are not mutually exclusive.

In the first option, the agreed Royal Charter does not set up a regulatory body, it sets up a recognition panel. Regulation is not enforced by Parliament, or even by the recognition panel, but by the regulator. Finally, the rules were written by Lord Justice Leveson and, and incorporated into a Royal Charter.

The second option describes exactly the scenario that Leveson intended, a scenario that is entirely compatible with the Royal Charter scheme just agreed. Therefore to provide it as an alternative to the first option is inaccurate.

Q3: 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: 45% (up from 43% in Nov)
– The behaviour of our press and journalists has gone too far and they can no longer be trusted to set up their own regulatory system, Parliament should act to introduce proper legal regulation: 36% (35% in Nov)
– Neither: 9%
– Don’t know: 11%

It is difficult to see how anyone would disagree with the statement “It is vital for our democracy that a free press is protected”, nor why that clause is absent from the alternative option. In addition to which, many Leveson supporters – and the judge himself – would agree with the second part of this option (‘Whatever the failings of a few journalists. statutory regulation set up by politicians would risk damaging our press freedom’). Leveson did not recommend statutory regulation, nor does the Royal Charter enact it. As Leveson said explicitly in his report, “Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.’

Neither does the second option (‘the behaviour of our press and journalists has gone too far…’) make sense given what Leveson actually recommended, or the use of a Royal Charter. Leveson did trust the newspaper industry to set up its own system, as long as it adhered to basic standards. The Royal Charter does not require Parliament to introduce any legal regulation.

This question is an exact repeat of one commissioned by The Sun before Lord Justice Leveson made any recommendations on how the press should be regulated. Therefore not only does it not take account of what Leveson actually recommended, neither does it take account of any of the adaptations to those recommendations since (i.e. the use of a Royal Charter).

The results of this question are, therefore, of very limited relevance now.

Q4: Who do you think should pay for a system of press regulation?

– The government should fund media regulation from general taxation: 9%
– The newspapers and media should fund media regulation themselves: 77%
– Don’t know: 14%

This question may have been relevant in the pre-Leveson environment, but there is now no present plan for government-funded press regulation. It is not clear why it has been asked at all.

Q5: To what extent, if at all, would you trust Parliament and politicians to set up a fair system of press regulation?

– Total Trust A Lot/A Fair Amount: 30% (up from 27% in Nov)
– Total Do Not Trust A Lot/At All: 60% (down from 61% in Nov)
– Don’t know: 10%

Trust in politicians has been low for a long time, so trust in politicians to set up a fair system of press regulation is also low – as seen not just in this poll, but in numerous others.

This is why an independent inquiry was established, chaired by a judge, to come up with recommendations for a new system of regulation. That is what Leveson did, in a 2,000-page report.

The system that has developed since November 2012 is intended to reflect Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations.

Q6: And to what extent, if at all, would you trust newspapers and journalists to set up a fair system of press regulation?

– Total Trust A Lot/A Fair Amount: 26% (27% in Nov)
– Total Do Not Trust A Lot/At All: 65% (63% in Nov)
– Don’t know: 10%

Again, numerous polls have established that the public have low levels of trust in journalists and newspapers. Indeed, this question corresponds with Question 2 of the October 2013 MST poll, which shows that 73% of the public would not have confidence in a system of press regulation set up by the press, in which there was no provision for regular independent review.

Q7: Imagine a legal system of press regulation was set up by Parliament. What risk, if any, do you think there is that future governments would use a legal system of press regulation to try and stop newspapers from criticising them?

– Total Risk: 76% (75% in Nov)
– Total No Risk: 11% (11% in Nov)
– Don’t know: 13%

This is, once again, a repeat of a question first asked by The Sun in 2012. In the changed environment of October 2013 it makes even less sense than Question 3 (above).

A legal system of press regulation has not been set up by Parliament. A Royal Charter has been agreed by the three parties. To change the Royal Charter would require a 2/3 majority of both Houses. To introduce legislation only requires a simple majority. In other words, it is harder to change the Charter than it is to introduce a law. Which means there is a greater risk that future governments would introduce laws to stop newspapers criticising them, than that they would seek to change the Charter.

What The Sun’s poll tells us, in context

One striking fact about The Sun’s repeated poll is that there has been almost no shift in any of the answers given by respondents almost one year apart, despite a concerted campaign by a majority of newspapers to attack the various proposed solutions to the failings the Leveson Inquiry uncovered, except for those set up by the newspaper industry itself.

It might have been expected that this campaign may have caused a shift in public opinion, but polls commissioned by the Media Standards Trust and others since the Leveson Report was published have shown that public opinion has been remarkably consistent in this area. The Sun/Yougov poll is no different.

Given the lack of contextual relevance in the questions that the newspaper re-ran, however, it is not clear that The Sun poll tells us very much at all about the present situation, except that the public continue to distrust both politicians and journalists.

It is good to see that the newspaper industry has re-engaged with public opinion polling on matters of press regulation after a long absence. It would be helpful if, in future, they ask more specific questions about the genuine options on the table.

More importantly, it would be interesting to see further polling on public confidence in the plan put forward by the press to set up its own regulator (IPSO) without seeking the independent recognition or inviting independent review as the Royal Charter requires.

For the full list of opinion polls featuring questions on press regulation since the Leveson Inquiry began, see here

For the MST/YouGov poll of 9-10 October, see here

For the Sun/YouGov poll of 14-15 October, see here

This post originally appeared on the Media Standards Trust website and is reproduced with permission and thanks.