This post was first published at the Huffington Post UK on 8th September 2014
As IPSO – the press’ response to Leveson – opened for business this week, newspapers may be wondering whether they will be able to convince the public that it is not just a replica of its discredited predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission.
No doubt IPSO will receive praise from newspapers themselves – at least initially. But will this be enough to paper over its shortcomings? And will it be enough to distract the public from how far the self-regulator is from what Leveson recommended, and from what Parliament agreed.
Based on the public’s response to the coverage of the Leveson Report and its implementation by the national press, the answer is no. It is highly unlikely that positive newspaper coverage will ever convince the public that IPSO is independent or effective.
In the twelve months after Leveson published his recommendations, from November 2012 to November 2013, the national press – with the notable exceptions of The Guardian, The Independent and the FT – went for Leveson’s report and the subsequent settlement by Royal Charter with undisguised and undiluted rage.
The rage did not come in intermittent shouts, but as one persistent scream. 2,047 articles published over twelve months. That equates to an average of six articles in the national press each day on press regulation, every day for a year. The subject was covered far more than it was during the Inquiry itself (when there was, arguably, ‘news’ coming out of the Royal Courts of Justice every day).
Nor were these articles neutral news reports. Over two-thirds of the two thousand articles expressed a view about Leveson or its aftermath. Most of these views were negative. Seven out of ten leader columns about press regulation after Leveson – out of 217 published – were wholly negative. In other words, they did not have a single positive thing to say about Leveson or the post-Leveson settlement.
Headlines of the leader articles will give you a pretty good impression: ‘Shadow of fear over public’s right to know’, ‘Lords-a-leaping to gag the press’, ‘Statutes against liberty’, ‘Defy the zealots and defend liberty’, ‘Don’t give up on press freedom now’, ‘A muzzled media will make victims of us all’, ‘Press freedom – no longer made in Britain’, ‘Charging headlong to a secret state’. And so on and on.
The negative coverage was not restricted to opinion and leader columns either. The majority of news reports expressed a view too. In many cases this view was not a quote from a news source but just stated within the article, as though it were an accepted fact. For example, under the headline ‘Papering over the cracks’, the Daily Mirror reported that “Lord Leveson [sic] sparked fears for the future of investigative journalism yesterday by proposing draconian curbs on reporters” (30th November, 2012).
Simultaneously, newspapers praised their own efforts to create an industry Royal Charter and to set-up their own Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Of 19 leader columns in the national press about the industry Royal Charter, all 19 were wholly positive. Of eight leader columns in the national press about IPSO during this period, all eight were wholly positive. North Korean leaders could hardly hope for a better press.
Perhaps, you might argue, this was because there was not a diversity of views out there. Yet there was. The leading Leveson recommendations were supported by all parties in Parliament, by the victims of press abuse, by many civil society groups and – most importantly – by the public (based on four polls conducted in the weeks surrounding the publication of the judge’s report, one commissioned by The Sunday Times). Support persisted amongst all these groups for the Royal Charter agreement reached in March 2013.
Or perhaps you might argue that the newspapers were simply reflecting a hardening of the public’s views following the Inquiry, and growing fears amongst the public about the potential threat of the recommendations to press freedom.
But again, this is not borne out by the evidence. 24 opinion polls were commissioned between May 2012 and June 2014 that covered aspects of press regulation. Even taking into account the use of trigger words in questions (‘MPs’, ‘politicians’, ‘independent’) the view of the majority of the public is not hard to discern from these.
According to almost all these polls the British public want tough press regulation. We are comfortable with press regulation being supported through legislation. We do not see this is a threat to press freedom. We are distrustful of politicians. We are even more distrustful of newspapers.
These views hardly changed over the course of the year following Leveson’s report, despite the cavalcade of abuse hurled at the judge’s recommendations and at the Royal Charter in much of the national press.
One has to conclude, therefore, that when it came to press regulation most national newspapers were not interested in representing the views of the public. Nor were they concerned to balance their own views with the views of those who disagreed with them. They preferred to publish articles that conformed to their own viewpoint and to suppress or ignore those of others. Their own viewpoint, consistent with their own self-interest, was to denigrate Leveson’s report and its implementation.
And yet, despite this outpouring of rage and negativity by most of the national press, public opinion remained consistently in favour of a Leveson system and consistently against the industry alternatives.
The lesson from the past couple of years is that paeans of praise from newspapers for IPSO will have little impact on the public’s confidence in it. Without public confidence no regulator can hope to survive for long.
The figures in this piece come from a new report published by the Media Standards Trust – ‘How newspapers covered press regulation after Leveson’ by Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay which can be read here. The full dataset is available here.