What matters is what works

Peter KellnerPresident
March 18, 2013, 8:55 AM GMT+0

YouGov President, Peter Kellner, analyses the public’s views on press regulation and Wednesday’s Budget

The public’s response to two very different controversies is much the same: what matters is what works. Asked about how best to regulate the press and, separately, what the Chancellor should say in his Budget, voters are uncertain. Don’t knows abound: a sure sign of public uncertainty. YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times finds that voters are more interested in ends than means. They want success – a well-behaved press and a growing economy – but, within reason, don’t mind what is done to achieve it.

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Press regulation first. Clear majorities want bad behaviour punished. Fully 90% want a system that forces newspapers to print corrections when they say things that aren’t true. A smaller, but still substantial, majority wants to punish newspapers who opt out of a new system of regulation; 62% want such papers to face damages of up to £1 million when they are found guilty of libel.

But beyond that, there is no clear consensus:

  • 38% back new laws to encourage newspapers to join a new system of regulation; 41% think ‘it is wrong in principle for politicians to pass laws that curb newspapers: MPs should not get involved in any new system of regulation’.

  • The figures are identical when people are asked about the possible impact of new laws: 41% think they would threaten press freedom, while 38% disagree.

  • Voters are also divided over whether new laws would make it harder for papers ‘to use reasonable investigative methods to uncover politicians who misbehave’: 39% think they would, while 37% do not.

  • As for the issue at the heart of the recent arguments among the three main party leaders, 38% would like the proposed Royal Charter to be underpinned by a law passed by Parliament, while 30% think the Charter should be set up completely independent of Parliament. But 32% don’t know: an unusually high number for a controversy that has provoked such conflict at Westminster.

Two factors are at work. The first is that the public has little faith in either journalists or politicians. Down the years, YouGov has charted the way trust in both trades has declined. Were one to command respect and the other contempt, we would probably find that most voters came down on one side of the controversy. As it is, most voters probably regard a contest between MPs and journalists over press ethics as they might view rats fighting on a fly-blown rubbish tip.

Secondly, one reason why we have a representative democracy is that many decisions, even the most dramatic, require detailed technical knowledge – whether regarding the details of press regulation and the role of the law, or how to revive prosperity in an era of big public sector deficits. We hold general elections to judge past performance and choose who should take office for the next few years. Far from being an abdication of voter-responsibility, it is wholly proper for voters to be uncertain about what to do, but to insist on success.

At the time of writing this blog, the signs are that David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have agreed the way ahead. An agreement has obvious advantages. It is more likely to last than one that a major party argues is fundamentally flawed.

However, the real test is not what MPs decide this week but how the new system operates in practice. Do all the main newspaper groups sign up to the new system? Do papers curb their worst behaviour – not just in the short term but in the years to come? Are they still able to expose bad behaviour by the rich and powerful? When they make mistakes do they correct them sufficiently prominently? Perhaps most tricky of all – will the new system evolve into one that embraces online news and not just the declining business of printed journalism? The public’s verdict today is worth noting; but the verdict that will really count is the one in years to come.

Which brings us to this week’s second major event, Wednesday’s Budget. George Osborne is more unpopular than at any time since he became Chancellor, precisely because success has so far eluded him. A record 67% of the public think he is doing badly as Chancellor – a view shared by fully half of all those who voted Conservative three years ago.

It’s not personal, it’s because the economy is stuck. Just 19% think the Government’s strategy is either working, or will start to work soon – down from the already low 28% the last time YouGov asked this, five months ago. 66% have little or no confidence that the coalition will steer Britain out of crisis.

But if voters don’t think Plan A will work, which of the rival Plan Bs do they prefer? Neither, actually. The right-wing version – more tax cuts funded by sharper reductions in public spending – attracts the support of only 17%. Labour’s alternative – borrow more and cut spending more gradually – is even less popular, with a mere 11% support. It’s not that voters are angrily demanding a particular change of direction, more that they despair of escaping the gloom any time soon.

As for specific Budget measures, most people want health and education spending to be spared future cuts, but overseas aid to lose its protection. Voters divide evenly over whether better-off pensioners should continue to receive their free bus passes and winter fuel allowances.

The public’s overall message to Osborne is clear, if unhelpful: “It’s your job, not ours, to clear up the mess. We don’t know what to do. You keep saying you do know: the time has come for you to stand and deliver. We’re tired of waiting. At the next, election it won’t be your policies that we shall judge, but your results”.

See the full YouGov / Sunday Times survey results here

This article is also featured on the Comment is Free section of the Guardian

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