Britons likely to favour government in media intrusion controversy

The media is one of the institutions that has suffered the greatest decline in public trust over recent years, according to GlobeScan’s long-term tracking. One country where trust in the fourth estate has been in particularly short supply is the UK, and events this week have placed the media’s problems firmly back in the spotlight.
Public outcry was sparked by revelations 18 months ago that a major British tabloid, the News of the World, had hacked the voice-mail of murdered teenager Milly Dowler. This led to the launching of a wide-ranging inquiry into the “culture, ethics, and practices” of Britain’s press. The “Leveson inquiry” reported back Thursday, recommending the establishment of a system of statutory media regulation, which critics allege will curtail the ability of the press to expose abuses of power. But our data suggest that in this conflict between influential social stakeholders, Britons’ instincts are likely to be on the side of the politicians rather than the media. As this chart shows, UK trust in government to operate in society’s best interests outdistances trust in the media by a large margin.

However, distrust of the press is nothing new in Britain. Net trust in the British media may languish at -39 percent, but this has barely changed since 2001/2. Despite defenders of press freedom pointing to occasions when the media have drawn attention to wrongdoing, the British public are dubious about the press’ ability to have a positive impact on social problems. Net trust in the media has fallen substantially in the US and is also very low, at -22 percent, which may be a reflection of the polarized nature of politics and the widespread impression that the press itself has split into partisan factions. This contrasts sharply with France, where a culture of deference towards power, as highlighted by the Strauss-Kahn affair, and strict privacy laws combine with a higher estimation of the media’s potential to make a difference.
Britons’ significantly greater trust in government may come as a surprise to a UK media that has portrayed itself as a counterbalance to politicians. It highlights a long-term British exasperation with their anarchic press, though it mirrors a trend seen throughout the developed world to greater or lesser degrees. With critics of greater oversight of the press holding France up as an example of what to avoid, it is curious to see the press being perceived as more influential in that country. The challenge for British policymakers will now be to carry the public with them as they attempt to resolve this emotional issue with real implications for governance.

Finding from the GlobeScan Radar, Wave 2, 2012
This post was written by former GlobeScan Research Director, Sam Mountford.