Public attitudes towards the press

Lord Norton

pict01281I received yesterday a copy of the survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life carried out by BMRB Social Research for the Committee on Standards in Public Life.   The survey, conducted earlier this year, covers the media as well as politicians.  Its findings on the media tend to reinforce the points made in my earlier post on confidence in the press.

The survey found that the public get their greatest exposure to news about politics from news programmes on TV and radio.  Respondents distinguished quite clearly the broadsheet newspapers from the tabloids.  Of those questioned, 51 per cent thought that the broadsheets maintained high standards; the figure for the tabloids was 32 per cent.  Perhaps most relevant to my earlier post, 49 per cent thought standards had got worse with the tabloids; 34 per cent thought the same about the broadsheets.

The broadsheets were rated higher than the tabloids for doing a good job in keeping politicians accountable for their conduct.  Well over 80 per cent thought that the tabloids looked for any excuse to tarnish the name of politicians and that they focused on negative stories about politics and politicians.  Almost 90 per cent thought that the tabloids were more interested in getting a story than telling the truth.

The survey covered a wide terrain.  It can be read in full at:

I may do a later post on its findings about politicians.  Though it surveys opinions on MPs, ministers and public office holders, it appears not to ask about peers as a distinct category of politician or public official.  I think we have reason to feel aggrieved.  We do not operate in a vacuum and if we are to do our job well it is important to know what people feel about the way we are operating and the standards they expect us to maintain.

4 comments for “Public attitudes towards the press

  1. Troika21
    19/11/2008 at 12:32 pm

    We could make this a better place overnight by banning the Daily Mail.

    I have to wonder though, if people think that the tabloids are more interested in stories and that broadsheets are better at holding politicians accountable, why are they buying tabloids?

    Do people think its un-important to hold MPs accountable? Is it habbit? Do they simply want stories rather than news?

    To respond to your second statement on politicians and peers, Lord Norton, I’d say that it follows the survey data –

    MPs are to Peers as Tabloids are to Broadsheets.


  2. 20/11/2008 at 12:35 pm


    I suspect that the vast majority of the general public are not particularly interested either way, either through generalised “pox on both their houses” malaise with the political establishment or through time poverty. To the extent that people are buying The Sun for its politicking rather than, say, the football results, I think it’s fair to say that tabloids represent a lower time and energy investment than broadsheets, which are themselves lower energy than a well-stocked RSS feed.

    It’s only to be expected that the majority of the political press should be somewhat populist and somewhat simpler in the demands it makes of its readership. Not everyone has the time to read Foreign Policy.

    The question I would ask, particularly in the aftermath of the Brad/Ross debacle and in the midst of the overwrought histrionics over “Baby P”, is that if surveys show that people do not trust the tabloids, why do politicians so often allow the red tops to set the tone and boundaries of the public debate? Is it a case of the squeaky wheel getting the grease? If so, what can be done do ameliorate this undue influence by one very small and unelected section of the electorate?

  3. lordnorton
    20/11/2008 at 1:35 pm

    Troika21 and McDuff: Many thanks for your comments.

    Troika 21: On your last point, I think I had better let others comment!

    McDuff: I concur with your analysis. People purchase newspapers for a variety of reasons. For many, the football results in a tabloid (or broadsheet) are of more pressing interest than holding politicians to account. They look to others to call Government to account. Because readers look to bite-size news stories and find scandal easier to digest than analyses of world economic trends, the broadsheets follow the tabloids rather than the other way round.

    You ask a very pertinent question. Why do politicians allow themselves to be so influenced by the press, especially the tabloids? Newspapers do not sway public opinion, and voting behaviour, in the way that they think they do, so why are politicians so in awe of them? I would argue that politicians are influenced by the media because they believe that the media do have influence. It is all a matter of perception. Because that is how politicians view media influence, then the media do have significant influence – but not for the reasons politicians think. In this context, politicians are part of the problem. Their perception of the press leaves them following rather than leading. It may be that the decline in newspaper circulation, and reliance on other (mainly broadcast) sources, may over time reduce that impact; otherwise, what we have to look for are political leaders willing to lead in the face of tabloid disapproval.

  4. 24/11/2008 at 5:57 pm

    I think the decline in newspaper circulation may well have an impact, but my suspicions are that it will get worse before it gets better.

    At present, I would argue, newspapers have become the only “news partisans”. For all the brouhaha over the BBC and C4 news’ obvious attempt to be TV’s version of the Indy, those using actual paper and ink as their primary method of publication are the propagandists of our time, and with very few exceptions are small-c conservative populists. They’re the ones with an agenda they want to see implemented and they’re the ones who are shouting about it.

    Politicians, being flighty beasts seemingly conditioned to bark whenever a pollster rings a bell, don’t really have anywhere else to look. TV is either too “broadsheet” in its tendency to follow the tabloid agenda-setting (for example, the widespread acceptance of the ludicrous assertion that we are in “Broken Britain”) or owned by Rupert Murdoch and thus pretty much the TV equivalent of a tabloid. The internet is too fragmented to have serious and mainstream editorial voices unconnected to print media as of yet. So in looking for a “voice of the people” to guide them through the choppy waters of democracy, it seems that the only people politicians have to rely on consistently are, unfortunately, tabloid newspaper editors. Even though they represent an incredibly limited special interest group of businessmen whose policy interests do not necessarily align with those of “the people”, they nonetheless get to be “the voice of the people” because there seems to be nobody else around at the moment. Yes, there are many more voices in conglomerate, online and off, but the Dacres and Wades are the loudest and most ideologically consistent (for certain specific and shallow definitions of “ideology” and “consistent”, that is).

    It’s a British variation on the well known “Beltway Bubble” phenomenon in the USA, where politicians in DC are interviewed by journalists in DC, who go to the same cocktail parties and junkets and power lunches, and so eventually the political and media classes become locked in a symbiotic relationship, each reinforcing and feeding off the other’s conceptions about politics and the heaving, gelatinous mass moving further away from any communication with the real world. Over there politicians give journalists “access” which protects them from having to do any real reporting, and journalists in return pass on Conventional Wisdom about politicians which protects them from the public finding out what it is they actually do all day. Our variation is more reactionary but no less of a feedback loop, with politicians increasingly skittish about what the tabloids will be outraged about next, and the tabloids becoming increasingly drunk with the disproportionate power that they wield. The upshot of the American crisis is to cement the power of the political establishment, the upshot of our problems is to cement the power of unelected media moguls, who do not even have to convince the people of an agenda as long as they can convince politicians that they have convinced the people – an altogether easier task, especially if your pet politician has been well trained.

    As far as “solutions” go, other than waiting for the power of long-term trends to swing us back around to a less distorted political forum, I don’t really have any that spring obviously and easily to mind. A little more willingness on the part of our elected officials to not go along with whatever outrage the Dacre-Wade Complex has concocted today, and maybe even to offer some compelling argument as to why we shouldn’t be listening to the reactionary old hacks in the first place, would be a good start. So would the emergence of another consistent editorial voice with broad circulation that could challenge the tabloids’ dominance of the daily political agenda. Oh, and while we’re at it, I think we can all agree that we’d benefit from magical ponies to fly us to work in the morning too.

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