Public condemns tabloid culture

Peter KellnerPresident
June 11, 2012, 8:29 AM GMT+0

Recent YouGov results show British public think Murdoch 'not fit' to run News Corp, and 'don't have much sympathy' with the tabloid press, or its celebrity hacking targets, as Leveson resumes

According to our survey for the British Journalism Review, published as Lord Leveson resumes his inquiry after its Jubilee holiday break, most people think Rupert Murdoch is not a ‘fit and proper person’ to run News Corp. But the public also condemns tabloid priorities more widely – though readers have only limited sympathy for those celebrities whose lives attract so much scrutiny.

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On Murdoch, we asked: ‘As you probably know, Rupert Murdoch is the founder and chairman of News Corp, the company that ultimately owns The Times, Sunday Times and Sun, and is the largest shareholder in Sky Television. Recently a majority of MPs on a House of Commons Committee declared that “Rupert Murdoch is not a fit and proper person to run an international company”. A minority of MPs disagreed. Do you think Mr Murdoch is or is not a fit and proper person to run an international company?’

Just 16% think he is, while 56% think he is not. As many as 28% don’t know. This is a high figure for a subject of intense controversy that has been covered extensively in the news for many weeks. Although those who take sides divide by more than three-to-one against Murdoch, it’s clear that millions of people feel less passionately than the community of political and media junkies.

That said, huge majorities of voters think that the tabloid papers have gone too far in recent years – not just in the dubious and sometimes illegal methods they have used to obtain information, but in the type of stories they have pursued.

We listed a number of notion stories and asked whether they should be published. We offered three options – ‘this story is definitely in the public interest and should be published’; ‘this story is not necessarily in the public interest, but nevertheless it should be published’; and ‘this story is a private matter and should NOT be published’. These are the results:

Should be publishedPrivate matter

Definitely in public interest

Maybe not in public interest

Should not be published

Food sold by a major supermarket have been contaminated by bacteria




A High Court judge has large investments in foreign companies linked to the illegal drugs trade




A schoolteacher has been passing on exam questions to her students to help their GCSE grades




A company testing medicines is suspected of cruelty towards animals




A well-known footballer, who is married with young children, is having an affair




A leading politician's daughter is found drunk in public




A member of a leading pop group has had cosmetic surgery to change the shape of her face




A contestant on Britain's Got Talent who has reached the final once tried to commit suicide




As those figures show, the public distinguishes very clearly between stories that are, and are not, in the public interest. However, in the case of the footballer, politician’s daughter and pop singer, substantial minorities think the stories SHOULD be published, even though very few say they are clearly in the public interest. Readers of red-top papers are slightly – though only slightly – more likely than the readers of upmarket papers to think this.

It’s also worth noting that this batch of questions elicited very few don’t knows – between 3% and 6% per story. Millions of people may have no strong views about Murdoch, but they do hold clear opinions about what is, and is not, a proper subject for media inquiry.

These figures mean, of course, that many people buy the very papers that are most likely to run ‘improper’ stories. It’s a moot point how far people buy these papers BECAUSE they run these stories, and how far they buy them DESPITE their passion for such stories. Could it be that many readers would genuinely prefer these stories not to appear, but don’t want to miss out on what their friends and neighbours are talking about?

Part of the explanation is suggested by the results to one other question, which found that celebrities attract only limited sympathy from the wider public. We asked people where their sympathies mainly lay:

With the newspaper owners and editors like Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Sun, and Paul Dacre who edits the Daily Mail: 1%

With celebrities like Hugh Grant and Sienna Miller whose phones were hacked: 43%

I don’t have much sympathy with either side: 53%

Don’t know: 3%

Plainly, newspaper readers are not on the side of tabloid papers – whether those, such as the News International papers that the police are investigating, or those, such as the Daily Mail, against which no evidence of illegal action has been produced. But most people do not side with the celebrities either. The dominant attitude is: a plague on both your houses. To adapt Oscar Wilde’s view of fox-hunting, most readers view journalists investigating the private indiscretions of celebrities as the unspeakable in pursuit of the unethical.

These results suggest that the challenge is not just to Lord Leveson to propose a better system of press regulation, but to newspaper editors to persuade their readers that, in their choice of stories, their own moral framework deserves more respect than that of the celebrities whose lives they expose.

See the survey details and full results here

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