The so-called Free Speech Network, which managed an own goal at its launch by turning away someone of potentially inconvenient thought, has now commissioned a “Free Press Poll” from Survation [.pdf]. To no surprise at all, it has yielded results that will give the organisation much comfort. But a quick look at the questions asked shows that the way these have been selected and structured is the main reason.
After the softening up process of the first few questions, which satisfy the “It’s not as important as unemployment or inflation” get-out, we get to the serious – and seriously misleading – part with Question 8. The choice? It’s between “I am proud that the United Kingdom is regarded by some around the world as a model of press freedoms and freedom of speech” on the one hand, and “It is not relevant or important to me what other countries think of the UK’s press freedoms or freedom of speech”. This has sweet stuff all to do with what’s being discussed.
Then comes Question 9. You’ll have to patient – it’s a rambling preamble. “Recently there has been much criticism of press practices such as phone hacking, making payments to public officials, hacking of computers and contempt of court. These practices are all illegal, and some people believe that the solution to press misbehaviour is make sure the existing law is fully enforced and that journalists that commit such offences are prosecuted for doing so. Other people believe that the law needs to be changed to add further regulations to the behaviour of journalists. Q9. What should the government focus on to stop bad practices and misbehaviour by the media?”
The choices are “Ensure that the existing laws are actually enforced in full to bring perpetrators to account”, “Add new laws and regulations” [my emphases] and “Don’t know”. This is brilliantly loaded: note how “perpetrators” are already being “[brought] to account” before the alternative is asked, and that is worded to assert that it means “more laws”, rather than a different regulatory structure.
Not surprisingly, this gives the required answer: 70.7% of respondents chose the first option. But this is contradicted by the response to Question 14, “How soon should the Government be aiming to introduce any new system of press regulation?” which elicits a 77.7% total saying this should be within one year.
And the biscuit is well and truly taken by Question 19: “There has been a lot of discussion about journalistic standards in the recent past. Which issue has concerned you most?” to which the choices are phone hacking, payments to Police and public officials ... and allegations of a cover-up over Jimmy Savile! Seriously!!
To no surprise at all, this total non sequitur gets over 50%, proving that if you load the question the right way, the public will indeed “Look over there”. This is an outrageously desperate exercise. But no-one should be surprised.