The news we don't want to hear: What do people really think about government control of the press? Bill Miller was one of a team that carried out an independent survey of both the public and politicians, the results of which appear here for the first time

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The Independent Online
THIS Friday, Clive Soley's Private Member's Bill on the freedom and responsibility of the press is due to have its second reading in the Commons. As the debate intensifies, Glasgow University has announced the findings of a pounds 90,000 survey, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, of 2,060 voters and 1,244 politicians to find out what they really think about censorship and government control of the press.

The results of the interviews - spread from November 1991 to August 1992, to avoid over-reactions to individual events - show that 75 per cent of people opposed government control of the press: if a commission restricting the press in the light of Sir David Calcutt's report was seen to be controlled by government, it would not have public backing. They also suggest that politicians are more liberal than the people they represent.

What types of material should be banned?

Much current criticism of the press focuses on publication of offensive material. We asked questions about eight different kinds of potentially offensive material and whether they should be banned, published only in a restricted format, or published freely. The results are in Table 1. There was relatively little support for totally unfettered publication, but seldom a majority for a complete ban.

The public was relatively tolerant of pictures of violence or attacks on the Christian religion; less tolerant of intrusions into the private lives of senior politicians, attacks on minority religions and interviews with terrorists; and least tolerant of intrusions into the private lives of ordinary people or publication of lies and distortions of the truth.

Two points are important. First, there was a majority (65 per cent) for a ban on intrusions into the private lives of ordinary citizens, but not of politicians (43 per cent). Second, the public found lies and distortions more offensive than anything else. So false denials and high- level cover-ups would be even less popular than intrusions into private lives.

Politicians generally took the same view as the public on violent pictures and on lies and distortions, and were slightly more willing to ban attacks on minority religions. But they were about 11 per cent less willing than the public to ban other 'offensive' material, even intrusions into the private lives of politicians.

There was substantial support for banning publication of inconvenient or unpleasant truths, especially when a rudimentary argument in favour of censorship was added to the question. For example, we asked whether 'heavy television and press coverage of crimes such as murder or terrorist incidents should be banned'. In one-third of our interviews we gave no reason for a ban; in another third we added 'because it may encourage others to commit more crimes'; and in the final third 'because, later on, it may prevent an accused person getting a fair trial'.

With no argument in favour, 31 per cent of the public supported a ban, rising to 47 and 53 per cent respectively when we put these two arguments for a ban. Among politicians, 24 per cent favoured a ban without being given any argument for one, rising to 26 and 43 per cent respectively when we put the arguments.

Similarly, 35 per cent of the public favoured a ban on publication of high crime rates among black people, without being given any reasons, but 46 per cent when we suggested publication might encourage racial prejudice. Among politicians the figures were 18 and 25 per cent.

Finally, we asked if newspapers should be banned from publishing confidential government documents about defence, economic or health service plans (Table 2). In half our interviews, we added 'because publication might damage our national interests'. Without this appeal, 42 per cent of the public were prepared to ban publication of health plans, 42 per cent economic plans, and 72 per cent defence plans. Appeals to the national interest raised public support for censorship to 51, 60 and 80 per cent respectively.

Among politicians support for a ban on such documents was much lower. Without reference to national interests, 31 per cent would ban publication of confidential government documents on health, 34 per cent on the economy and 60 per cent on defence; reference to them changed these to 28, 51 and 63 per cent. Although an appeal to the national interest made them more willing to ban publication of economic plans, it was counter-productive when used against publishing health plans. They were less willing to support censorship and less easily influenced by arguments for it.

In one notable exception to the rule that active politicians were less willing than the public to back censorship, a ban on publishing incitement to racial or religious hatred was backed by 64 per cent of the public but 75 per cent of politicians.

Who supports censorship?

People with university education and no strong religious views were less favourable to bans than those without qualifications. Young people were less pro-censorship than old, Tory supporters more prepared to ban than Labour. There was general support for a ban on publishing race-hatred or lies, but sharp differences on banning interviews with terrorists, intrusions into private lives or publication of confidential government documents. On these issues, there was an average difference in public support for censorship of 23 per cent between those with high and low levels of education, 22 per cent between young and old, 20 per cent between churchgoers and the irreligious, 20 per cent between left and right and slightly smaller differences between people with different party preferences or attitudes to authority and free speech.

Opposition to government control

Despite considerable support for censorship in particular circumstances, only 36 per cent of the public and 11 per cent of politicians agreed that 'free speech is just not worth it if it means we have to put up with the danger to society from extremist views', while 91 per cent of the public and 93 per cent of politicians agreed that people had a 'general right to know the facts about the government's plans'. If they supported a ban on publication of extreme views or confidential government plans for the health service, they did so despite these principles.

They were also highly suspicious of government: 75 per cent of the public (and 80 per cent of politicians) were opposed to more government control of the media. Current snap-shot polls show support for a statutory Press Complaints Commission, but if that came to be seen as an arm of government rather than a public ombudsman, support for it might collapse.

The minority who favoured more government control of the media was more inclined towards censorship. And support for more government control was highest where support for censorship was highest. It remained minority support everywhere, however.

Public respect for the press

We asked people to use 'marks out of 10' in order to indicate how important various institutions were for protecting citizens' rights and liberties (Table 3). The survey listed, in addition to the press and television, the classic 'intermediate organisations' of civil society such as unions and churches; institutions such as Parliament, local councils, the courts and the Equal Opportunities Commission; government policies such as council house sales, privatisation and NHS or education reforms that have been justified in terms of liberty as well as efficiency; and proposals for constitutional reform such as a Bill of Rights, a Freedom of Information Act and an elected House of Lords.

The tabloids newspapers, particularly the Sun, came bottom of the public's list for protecting citizens' rights, but not far behind government policies such as privatisation or NHS reforms. Television and the quality press were judged to contribute more to citizens' rights and liberties than unions, churches, local councils and even MPs. Right at the top came proposals for a Freedom of Information Act. Politicians put a Freedom of Information Act at the top of their list and the Sun at the bottom.

Both the public and politicians saw television and the quality press as being among the best defenders of citizens' rights and liberties. Public distaste for intrusions into the private lives of ordinary people should not distract from their desire for more openness and honesty in government.

The author is professor of politics at Glasgow University. The survey was co-directed by Michael Lessnoff, reader in politics at Glasgow, and Annis-May Timpson, lecturer in Canadian studies at Nottingham University. Full results of the British Rights study will be published in book form next year.

----------------------------------------------------------------- 1. Percentage willing to ban publication of offensive material Public Politicians Lies and distortions of the truth 77 75 Intrusions into private lives of ordinary people 65 55 Interviews with IRA terrorists 50 36 Interviews with Protestant terrorists 45 35 Abusive attacks on minority religions 44 49 Intrusions into private lives of politicians 43 34 Abusive attacks on the Christian religion 32 21 Pictures of extreme violence 32 33 ----------------------------------------------------------------- 2. Percentage willing to ban publication of confidential government documents ----------------------------------------------------------------- Without appeal With appeal to national interests to national interests Public Politicians Public Politicians Defence plans 72 60 80 63 Economic plans 42 34 60 51 Health plans 42 31 51 28 ----------------------------------------------------------------- 3. Marks out of 10 for protecting citizens' rights and liberties ----------------------------------------------------------------- Public Politicians Freedom of Information Act 7.8 8.3 Bill of Rights 6.7 7.8 Equal Opportunities Commission/ Commission for Racial Equality 6.7 6.6 An elected House of Lords 6.6 6.7 British courts 6.5 6.5 Quality newspapers (average) 6.3 6.7 Television 6.3 6.5 European courts 6.3 6.7 Trade unions 6.0 6.5 Local councils 5.6 6.9 Tabloid papers 'such as the Mirror' 4.4 4.3 Tabloid newspapers (average) 3.9 3.5 Tabloid newspapers 'such as the Sun' 3.3 2.8 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)

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