Media losing its 'truth-seeking' status - Leveson must act
by Ruth Fox
The negative diet of stories about the political process from the UK media – especially the tabloid press – has created a sense of fatalism among readers, says think-tank
As the Leveson Inquiry, into British press standards, draws to a close what we have heard and witnessed raises serious questions about the role and responsibilities of the media - particularly newspapers - in our democracy. At the inquiry - the views of leading politicians, journalists and academics and an array of celebrities have been heard. But what do the public think about the relationship between politics and the media?
Our latest 'audit of political engagement' confirms that the public perceives the media to be highly significant in shaping both the content and the conduct of politics; therefore influencing citizens' political preferences and attitudes towards politics. Some 74 per cent of citizens believe the media is particularly likely to influence how people vote, while 60 per cent think that it influences the topics that politicians debate in parliament and 54 per cent believe that journalists influence the decisions that politicians make.
The audit results indicate that the public is generally satisfied with much of the press coverage of politics, but dig a little deeper and they feel that they are not actually very effective in relation to key aspects of the democratic role that the media claim for themselves. Conveying political information and knowledge to their readers and performing the crucial watchdog role of holding politicians and government to account is vital. This raises serious questions about whether the media is contributing to or harming the political engagement of citizens.
Despite the events of the last couple of years, public satisfaction with media reporting of politics generally has risen. Some 45 per cent of people claim to be satisfied compared to just 38 per cent who said the same two years ago. Those who are dissatisfied - 47 per cent of people - are broadly concerned about coverage that fails to present the full facts. Another 40 per cent are concerned when "little or no attempt to present a story in a balanced way" and 27 per cent are worried when a story seeks "to make people unnecessarily scared or angry".
Television coverage fares better than any other form of media, reflecting perhaps the extent to which public interest regulation addresses these challenges. However, this should not be overstated. The public do not give television a ringing endorsement. Only four or five in every 10 people agree that it helps the public learn about what is happening in politics. While 41 per cent citizens say the media is fair in its representation of politics and just 38 per cent think the press does a good job of keeping politicians accountable for their conduct.
Although, broadsheet readers are more likely to be politically engaged than other newspaper readers - still fewer than four in 10 members of the public believe that they do a good job of holding politicians to account, helping the public learn about what is happening in politics and being fair in their representation of it. Tabloid newspapers are consistently identified by two-thirds of the public as displaying negative traits in their coverage of politics and politicians. They are believed to be significantly more likely than other media to be "more interested in getting a story than telling the truth" say 68 per cent of respondents. And they "look for any excuse to tarnish the name of politicians", according to 63 per cent of people. They also "focus on negative stories about politics and politicians" – insist 63 per cent of citizens.
Indeed, tabloids are three times more likely to be perceived to be negative in their approach to the coverage of politics than broadsheets, radio or television. Notably, tabloid readers themselves strongly agree with these negative statements about their own newspapers of choice. They are perceived – including by tabloid readers themselves – not to be seekers after truth. And they are considered to be failing to provide the information that citizens require to participate in the political process.
The results confirm that it is clearly better to read some form of newspaper than none at all. People who read no newspapers at all have much less strong views, both positively and negatively inclined and by far the lowest levels of political engagement. They are less likely to be interested in and become knowledgeable about politics, and much less certain to vote. Although tabloid readers are more likely than non-readers to engage in politics, the effect is depressingly small.
They are no more positive than non-readers about their capacity to influence decision-making and, such is the unremitting diet of negativity, they are actually less likely than non-readers to believe that our system of governing works at least reasonably well. Even when controlling for the influence of demographic and media consumption factors known to influence political engagement, the audit results suggest that coverage of politics by the tabloid media may be contributing to a sense of fatalism among their readership about the political process. The way politics operates and the capacity of politicians to take the decisions necessary to run the country is also being questioned.
These results suggest that the media – particularly the print press and specifically the tabloids – do not greatly benefit our democracy from the perspective of nourishing political engagement. Given the influence that the public thinks the media has and the demonstrable link between readership and political engagement, the media ought to bear some responsibility for the consequences of its coverage of the democratic process and the willingness of citizens to engage in it. That power and influence should be balanced by some sort of independent, public interest, regulatory framework – supported by a more effective sanctions regime – which recognises and is designed to stimulate the responsibilities of the press alongside its rights within our democracy. It remains to be seen whether the Leveson Inquiry will, ultimately, be brave enough to grapple with this challenge.
Ruth Fox is director of research at the Hansard Society think-tank, in the United Kingdom