by Brian Cathcart
A clear majority of people trust the Leveson inquiry to deliver more effective regulation of the press and better protection of the public from intrusion, according to a poll carried out for the Times.
It’s a fact. A poll for the Times did find that, but unfortunately you didn’t read it in the Times.
A report on page eight of the print edition of the paper on Wednesday included the following passage relating to the Leveson inquiry:
… a new Populus poll for The Times suggests that the public believe the hearings have lost their way. The poll found 61 per cent agreeing that the “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”.
The same proportion felt that it has “received too much coverage in the media” given the other news around.
Less than half, 44 per cent, thought the inquiry “will result in a healthier, more arms-length relationship between politicians and the media”.
Strong stuff, you may think, putting the inquiry in its place. But if you took the trouble to rummage around in the Times website you might have found your way to this page. And if you went to Table 9 on that page you found something curious.
The Times didn’t just ask Populus to put those three propositions to respondents. There was a fourth proposition and it was this:
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.
And 59 per cent of people, a comfortable majority, agreed with that statement, while 27 per cent disagreed.
Though the Times asked the question and got a pretty clear answer – a big vote of confidence in the Leveson inquiry, you might say – the paper chose not to report this. Instead of getting the whole picture, in fact, Times readers were shown just that part of the picture that cast the Leveson inquiry in a bad light.
And it doesn’t end there, because the survey seems to have been loaded from the start.
It is a cliche of polling that if you phrase the question right you can greatly increase your chance of getting the answer you want. Ask people if ageing, useless, tree-hugging adulterer Prince Charles is a fit person to be king and they may well say no, but ask them if witty devoted father Prince Charles deserves to inherit after all these years of loyal patience and they are more likely to say yes.
Now look at two of the propositions put to people by the Times about Leveson:
The 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.
The Leveson Inquiry has received too much coverage in the media given how many other issues of more direct importance there are to report on at the moment.
If the Times has phrased those two propositions as follows, would it have received different responses?
Evidence to the Leveson Inquiry from politicians, editors and newspaper proprietors has shown that their relationships generally serve their own interests rather than the public interest. Do you agree or disagree?
The press has reported what it wanted the public to hear about the Leveson Inquiry, rather than giving a balanced view. Do you agree or disagree?
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and tweets at @BrianCathcart