Power, principles and the press

While we in the corporate communications industry have always paid attention to developments in the media – and journalists have been known to be fond of a little navel gazing – the past 12 months have seen a huge increase in the public’s interest in media principles and industry practices. Press standards have been the hot topic of the year, with all outlets regularly scrutinising industry practices and developments. We talk a lot in our industry about trust – it’s the holy grail for most businesses and something that we strive for in communications. But we wanted to explore whether trust in media really matters. You would expect that an erosion of trust in particular titles would impact sales, but as you’ll see from our data, the level of trust people have in newspapers is inversely proportional to their circulation figures. So what does this tell us? That we don’t expect our media to have morals? That we view it largely as entertainment? We also wanted to examine the role of the modern media and some of the thornier issues of media scrutiny and fairness. Media face an ongoing ethical dilemma when judging what is ‘in the public interest’ versus what is ‘interesting to the public’ and the debate continues around privacy versus free speech. Discussions around future regulation of the industry will need to explore the relative power of the internet as traditional media claim to be rendered increasingly powerless by regulation. We are at a crucial point for the industry, with a lot of uncertainty around what’s to come – but of one thing we can be sure – that the media will continue to generate its own headlines for months to come.

After what has been a year of incredible public scrutiny of the UK’s media, our research among senior business people, MPs, NGO executives and other opinion formers has shown that traditional print media lag behind broadcast media in terms of trust. Indeed, even the best performing print titles are trusted by only around half the opinion formers we interviewed. Instead, opinion formers and the public alike look towards the commentators they recognise from broadcast media – particularly the BBC; Robert Peston and Nick Robinson dominate thinking in the worlds of business and politics respectively, but Andrew Marr and Andrew Neil also receive notable mentions. Nevertheless, despite the increased scrutiny of the print media, traditionally popular areas of media attention are still seen as fair game – particularly if there is a suggestion of hypocrisy. Most of our respondents would publish stories on tax avoidance, bank managers’ yacht purchases and politicians’ affairs and the public are more likely to do so. The public are also more likely than opinion formers to think the media’s reporting of these kinds of individuals is too soft. Most draw the line, however, at the scenario of publishing leaked health information about a FTSE100 Chief Executive such as if they suffered from a mental illness. Clearly, the reputation of the UK’s media and our trust in it has been damaged in recent times. Whether there is a real desire for the media to stop publishing controversial stories and soften its attitude toward politicians, celebrities and bank executives is, however, more questionable.

Information, information, information
The founding principles of the BBC were: to educate, to entertain and to inform. But to what extent do they still apply to modern media? Our panels of MPs, senior business people and the public all agreed that the key role of media is to inform – somewhat contrary to the evidence, as the most popular media programmes and outlets largely focus on entertainment. And the way we receive information has become more immediate. Thanks to a rolling news cycle, digital and social media, fewer people tune into the evening news to find out what happened that day. Traditional media have evolved in response to this and now focus on providing broader analysis and context – which is absent in a 140 character tweet or a news screen headline.

Key MPs Opinion Formers Public

Rebecca Reilly, Director, Open Road

Rick Nye, Director, Populus

Which do you think is most important: inform, educate or entertain? Reithian Principles.
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In broadcast we trust
There is a clear trend here that shows increasing trust levels for online media, print and broadcast. The high levels of trust shown for broadcast media can be attributed both to the UK’s strict rules governing broadcast news, and the perception of a lack of ‘spin’ to broadcast as a medium. The ownership structure of newspapers, combined with each paper’s political agenda, makes it more likely that the public would trust the publication they most closely identify with. Interestingly, while the BBC was by far the most trusted organisation for the public, almost a quarter of opinion formers stated that they distrusted it, pointing to the widely held criticism amongst the political class of the left wing bias of the BBC.

Does trust matter?
If media’s primary role is to inform, this graph questions the extent to which people need to trust the information they consume. The disparity between a paper’s circulation figures and the extent to which it is trusted to report fairly, is stark. The Sun, trusted least of the papers in our survey, has by far the largest circulation in the country. And the need for an entertaining read on a Sunday transcends brand loyalty: when the News of the World ceased publication, the Sunday Mirror’s circulation figures were boosted by an average of around 800,000 copies a week, falling by the same amount after the launch of the Sun on Sunday.

To what extent do you trust the following to report fairly and accurately?
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Trust plotted against average daily newspaper circulation figures.

Which would you like to read more or less about?
Height shows percentage count

Do the media report fairly, too critically or too softly in relation to the following?
Numbers show percentage count

Key MPs Opinion Formers Public

Hypocrisy is not dead
The research confirms our schizophrenia, as people claim not to want to hear about celebrity gossip, when in fact this is a key driver of sales and viewing figures. Interestingly, opinion formers want to hear more about high-profile business figures but less about bankers. State-owned banks in particular come under a great deal of scrutiny by the media, perhaps more so than other institutions. Banks are no strangers to scandal and media will always highlight poor conduct at major institutions, but perhaps our appetite for banker-bashing is finally diminishing.

All’s fair in love and war
First it was the celebrities, then the politicians and now it’s the bankers. Each has had their turn to endure damning headlines. But opinion formers, MPs and the public all feel differently about the treatment of these groups by the media. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both MPs and opinion formers believe that they are treated too harshly by the media. The public tend to believe that bankers with salaries subsidised by the taxpayer are treated too softly, and their ire has moved this year from MPs to the City. This raises questions about the cautious nature of corporate communications. With few people willing to speak up to defend the City, is it surprising that coverage is often perceived as unfair or unbalanced?

Would you publish?
In a post-Leveson world there will be increasing scrutiny of judgement calls made by the press about whether or not a story should be published. Our panel was not afraid of making strong moral judgements. The vast majority would publish the politician’s affair, but few would include the businessman’s kiss and tell. The main difference between the two is the perceived hypocrisy – the MP had used family values to promote his own career. Where they sense unfairness, the public are also quicker to act as judge and jury – a rich entrepreneur avoiding taxes; or a banker bailed out with their taxes buying a yacht. The number of people who would make the editorial decision to reveal details about people’s private lives, including homosexuality, addiction and mental illness are quite low; although it’s worth bearing in mind that the number who would publish a story may differ from the number who would be happy to read a story about this.

Key MPs Opinion Formers Public

no yes

If you were the editor of a national newspaper who had the exclusive on these stories, would you publish?
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Which commentator on economics and business do you most respect? Type size represents count

Which political commentator do you most respect? Type size represents count

Methodology Populus interviewed 226 Opinion Formers online or by self-complete postal questionnaire between 20th April and 23rd May 2012. 122 were drawn from the Populus Parliament Panel, which interviews more than 100 MPs six times a year. 104 were drawn from the Populus Opinion Former Network, which consists of four categories of Opinion Formers – City & Business, Media & Communications, Politics & NGOs, and the Public Sector. Populus interviewed 2064 adults aged 18+ online between 9th–11th May 2012. Interviews were conducted across Great Britain and data has been weighted to be representative of all adults aged 18+. Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

About Open Road Open Road is a corporate communications consultancy based in central London. In 2011 we were named one of the top five Medium-Sized Consultancies by PR Week. We were Consultancy of the Year at the Public Affairs News Awards in 2010. Our core services include: • • • • • • • • Corporate reputation management Corporate PR Issue and crisis management Digital and social media engagement Public affairs Employee engagement Healthcare Corporate Social Responsibility

About Populus Populus delivers research that makes a real difference to our clients in the worlds of business, culture and politics. Through our stakeholder audits, parliamentary and stakeholder panels and a weekly omnibus, Populus gets inside the mind of the general public or the influencer and reveals what they are really thinking. Our team has an enormous wealth of experience in media, politics, business and civil society. Our informed insight gives business leaders a better understanding of their organisation’s reputation and helps identify strategies to improve and sustain that reputation. Populus can be found at: www.populus.co.uk For further information please contact info@populus.co.uk

Our website, blog and Twitter feed are at: www.theopen-road.com For further information, please contact info@theopen-road.com or 020 7484 5376

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