Public demand greater role in press regulation, reveals report by Carnegie UK Trust

October 22, 2012

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  • 63% of the public feel that the general public should play role in setting guidelines
  • 71% want to see independent regulator in place to adjudicate on complaints
  • 77% want an independent regulator involved in setting guidelines
  • Out of 90 story scenarios presented during the research, only 15 had a majority of the public approving for publication

The public can no longer be excluded from defining ‘the public interest’ in media regulation, argues a report published today by Carnegie UK Trust, as it emerged that 63% of people feel that the public should have a say in the regulation of the country’s media.

The report, Voicing the Public Interest: listening to the public on press regulation, a joint project by the Trust and the think tank Demos, also reveals that 63% mistakenly believe that Parliament is already involved in setting guidelines for the media on what is and is not in the public interest.

The findings come ahead of the Leveson report, which is expected to be published before the end of the year, on the outcome of the phone hacking scandal and where the nation sits on media ethics.

Martyn Evans, Chief Executive, Carnegie UK Trust said:  
“The nation was outraged by the intrusion into the lives of ‘normal’ people, like Milly Dowler’s family during the phone hacking scandal, and an overwhelming sense that the press have, in some cases, gone too far. But this national debate has been taking place without information about where normal people would draw the line between what is and is not acceptable in the name of the ‘public interest’. This report addresses that deficit.

“We carried out this research to find out where the public see the balance and were struck by the findings which show they are, in general, far more reluctant to publish than the media and other commentators expect, especially where there has been a significant level of intrusion into the subjects lives.”

In a representative poll of 2,000 members of the public, participants of the research were given a total of 90 different scenarios, exploring public attitudes towards free speech, privacy and investigative journalism. Out of these scenarios, only 15* had a majority of the public approving publication.

For example,

  • Just 29% supported the publication of a kiss and tell story about a sports star or actor, using information gained through interviewing friends and neighbours.  
  • Only 41% support publication of a story about a FTSE 100 director making money illegally, with information for the story gained from going through the dustbins outside of a house.
  • Less than half (46%) of the public supported publication of a story about an elected politician putting others at risk, with information for the story gained from going through the dustbins outside of a house.
  • 40% believe that stories should ‘never’ be published if they draw on information gained through illegal entry into premises. 

Martyn continued:

“The most important element of our report is that the public want to be involved: they want to have a voice in press regulation. They are not content with a system of self-regulation whereby editors and journalists set the guidelines on what is acceptable in the public interest. In adjudicating on complaints, they are most positive about an independent regulator funded by government but again, the majority want a clear role for the general public in the process.”

The public appear to take a more pragmatic than moralistic approach in judgements about the public interest. Stories calling people’s professional competence into question enjoyed higher support for publication than those revealing deceit for example.

Meanwhile, no ‘kiss and tell’ stories enjoyed majority public support for publication. The public were also most likely to support the publication of stories about people in positions of power and responsibility.

The report reveals strikingly low levels of trust, with many people not believing that tabloid newspapers in particular operate ethically, with due regard to the public interest.
Only one in ten of those surveyed expects the Sun to behave ethically, with just 12% taking that view of the Daily Mirror. The highest ethical approval rating was given to the Financial Times at 55%.

Duncan O’Leary, Deputy Director of Demos and a co-author or the report commented:
“Journalists need much more clarity on how public interest judgements will be reached – for their own sake and that of the public. Until that is made much clearer, investigative journalism risks becoming either too timid or too intrusive to serve the public interest.

“Above all the public need to brought into the conversation. Newspapers should become more transparent, so that readers know how stories have been acquired wherever possible. And regulators must become much more open and accountable, so that that the public can scrutinise the judgements made in their name.”

To download a copy of the report, follow the link here.

To view a 1-page infographic highlighting some key stats from the report, click here (PDF).