Reports of a – not so very contradictory – PCC survey

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How would you react if you saw two opinion polls that appeared to contradict one another? My initial reaction would be ‘Huh, that’s interesting, I wonder why that is?’ I’d then – if I was interested enough – try to work out what was contradictory and why.

Peter Preston takes rather a different approach in The Observer (‘What does Joe Public think about the PCC? Not too many complaints’). Reporting on an – as yet unpublished – PCC sponsored opinion poll whose findings appear to conflict with previous polls (that of the Media Standards Trust included) Preston suggests the PCC figures mean it is ‘case closed – until someone opens it again’.

But if you take a slightly more open minded approach and examine the PCC survey’s findings, you discover not only similarities between its results and others (including the MSTs), but that most of the results are not really so very conflicting at all.

[Let’s ignore, for the moment, that the actual poll is not currently available to Joe Public, only to the press, and that it was conducted by ‘Toluna’, an online DIY polling company that is not recognized by the British Polling Council].

To take the findings as reported:

Finding #1: 81% of Britons know the PCC exists. This finding tallies closely with that of the MST poll conducted in December 2008. The MST survey –a YouGov online poll with 2,024 respondents – found that 20% of people knew ‘a lot’ or ‘a fair amount’ about the PCC, 44% knew ‘a little’, and 29% had ‘heard of them but nothing more’. Only 8% knew nothing or weren’t sure. (Full results online in appendix of ‘A More Accountable Press’).

Finding #2: 58% think it would (in Preston’s words) be ‘improper to just go wading into inquiries or judgments without being requested to do so’. Of course it would be improper to ‘just go wading in’ – is anyone suggesting they do?

The question is not ‘do you think the PCC should just go wading in’ but ‘what should prompt the PCC to assess whether an article(s) has broken the editorial code?’

All regulators have a code of conduct (or equivalent). When this code has been broken – or appears to have been broken – is it is the responsibility of the regulator, any regulator, to investigate whether it has been and, if it has, to do something about it.

Right now the PCC will look into a case only if a ‘first party’ makes a formal complaint (there are a few notable exceptions to this rule). Many of those who criticize the PCC think this is too restrictive. What if it is entirely clear that a news article has broken the code but there is no obvious first party to complain? What if a ‘third party’ makes a valid complaint? What if there is significant public concern about an issue such that it would be in the public interest to have an independent investigation? If the PCC took action in these cases would it be ‘wading in… without being requested’? No, it would be making an inquiry based on the request of a third party or in the public interest.

Figure #3: according to the report, twice as many think the PCC should respond to complaints rather than ‘monitor everything’. How on earth would the PCC monitor everything? Given the tsunami of information on the web that would be impossible. But to keep an eye on the press, and to be alert to serious criticism of its actions – isn’t that the role of any independent regulator?

Figure #4: 51% think ‘the current commission make up of majority outsiders and senior journalists is right’. ‘Senior journalists’? ‘senior journalists’! Surely what the survey meant to say is ‘editors’ since that is who sits on the commission. This is not a semantic distinction. The NUJ has been campaigning for years to get ‘senior journalists’ onto the Commission without any success.

Figure #5: ‘77% prefer a quick apology to calling in the legal eagles’. Of course they do! Wouldn’t anybody? The problem is, they rarely get a quick apology. Many rarely get an apology or correction at all.

Figure #6: ‘only 14% say the Commission’s work is ineffective’. On its own, this figure is not very helpful. Most members of the public have not had experience of complaining to the PCC, therefore it is very difficult for them to judge whether it is effective or ineffective. It was for this reason that the Media Standards Trust did not ask this question in either of its surveys.

More helpful are surveys of those who have direct experience of using the PCC. And indeed there is an annual PCC survey, the latest of which covers 2009.

Here too we get some inkling of the need for a little skepticism about survey results – especially those commissioned by an organization about itself. If you look at the PCC satisfaction surveys over the last few years, they are remarkably – curiously – consistent.

In 2009:

‘80% of complainants said that their complaint had been dealt with thoroughly or very thoroughly’. This compared with a figure of 81% in 2008, and 82% in 2007 (in 2007 Annual Report, p.24)

‘72% of those surveyed considered that the overall handling of their complaint was very satisfactory or satisfactory’ compared with a figure of 75% in 2008 and 76% in 2007

‘79% of people felt that the time it took to deal with their complaint was ‘about right’’, compared with a figure of 79% in 2008 and 81% in 2007

The figures are, in other words, almost exactly the same each year. This is a consistency even Pravda found it difficult to maintain.

It may be that this is simply a coincidence, and perhaps the figures will show a distinct change this year, we’ll see. Still, it makes one realize that such surveys should always be read with a skeptical eye – and an open mind.


Update: the full results (pdf) of the PCC survey have now been published and have been assessed by TabloidWatch here: ‘PCC is great as it is, says PCC poll

Written by Martin Moore

May 3rd, 2010 at 5:18 am

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