The media, as we are often reminded, plays the vital role of “public watchdog” – holding the powerful in society to account. There are, however, limits to the way in which it performs this function. One of the most striking of these concerns the failure of the media to hold itself to account. News which does not fit with the media’s own view of its role in society and how it should be regulated is either distorted or ignored. This gives rise to serious concerns about the way in which the Leveson Inquiry report is likely to treated.
Three striking examples can be given from the recent past.
First, on 24 May 2012, the IPPR published an opinion poll which suggested that more than 60% of the public now favour statutory regulation of the press. A total of 94% of those favouring regulation (77% of the sample) thought the regulation should be “fairly strict” or “very strict”. As we reported at the time, save for a small item in the “Guardian”, this was wholly ignored by the national media.
Second, in June 2012, the Times commissioned a Populous poll which put the proposition
The Leveson Inquiry will lead to more effective regulation of the press offering better protection to members of the public against unwarranted intrusion into their private lives.
The responses showed that 59 per cent majority, agreed with that statement, while 27 per cent disagreed. However, this result did not find its way into the newspaper which, instead reported on the responses to a proposition which clearly suggested its own answer
‘Leveson inquiry has lost its way as a procession of politicians, journalists and celebrities have simply tried to defend themselves against one another’s allegations.’
Unsurprisingly, 61 per cent agreed. Brian Cathcart pointed out the problems in a post the time. The Times did not publish any correction or clarification.
Third, Steven Barnett on behalf of the British Journalism Review, commissioned a poll on attitudes to the public interest. This showed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that most respondents thought that typical “tabloid stories” were not in the public interest and should not be published.
A well-known England footballer, who is married with young children, is having an affair
Public interest: 6%
Not public interest but should be published: 30%
Should not be published: 58%
A leading politician’s daughter is found drunk in public
Public interest: 2%
Not public interest but should be published: 22%
Should not be published: 69%
A member of a leading pop group has had cosmetic surgery to change the shape of her face
Public interest: 3%
Not public interest but should be published: 25%
Should not be published: 66%
A contestant on Britain’s Got Talent who has reached the final once tried to commit suicide
Public interest: 3%;
Not public interest but should be published: 12%;
Should not be published: 80%
Once again, this was ignored by the mainstream media. Steven Barnett had a post on this at the time.
These are examples of the media ignoring evidence about media regulation issues which they don’t like.
There is an even more striking recent example of the way in which the media deal with proposals for media regulation. This comes from Australia where, March 2012, there was a report by an Independent Media Inquiry, led by former Justice of the Federal Court of Australia, Mr Ray Finkelstein QC made a modest proposal for a government funded News Media Council, a statutory body to set journalistic standards and handle complaints.
As Professor Matthew Ricketson, a journalist and academic who assisted Judge Finkelstein, noted on Inforrm, the report was systematically misrepresented and distorted by the Australian media. The actual recommendations in the report were barely noticed a flood of media pieces attacking them. This was also discussed by Richard Ackland in a piece entitled “Finkelstein or Frankenstein?“
The Leveson Inquiry has been monitoring press coverage of its own operations and, as Lord Justice Leveson reminded everyone at the outset of Module 4 on 9 July 2012 he will also “incorporating into the record all the press cuttings that have dealt with the Inquiry from the outset”. What will be more interesting will come too late for the Inquiry – the media coverage of its report and recommendations. Unfortunately, the least likely outcome is a fair and balanced report of the arguments for and against.