But despite accusations of this government being obsessed by the tabloids, in practice most departments carry out relatively little systematic analysis of what the media are covering, how much weight they give to particular stories, or how positive or negative they are. Nor is there any assessment of the impact this is having on public confidence in government services.
It is clear the media do have an impact on public opinion. Ipsos MORI's analysis reveals that concerns about a range of issues – including hospital waiting lists, crime and immigration – can be highly correlated with the weight and scope of media stories.
Our report ‘Who do you believe?' showed that experience gives us the clearest understanding of what is happening elsewhere, yet our views are mainly informed by media coverage. A better understanding of just how much impact the media have on public opinion, across a range of issues, would enable the Government to take a hard look at likely emerging crises, and deal with them.
If it had been tracking early coverage of immigration and asylum, and how strongly concern correlated with media negativity, it might have been able to address the matter before it came to be seen as one of the top issues of public concern – even in regions with the lowest numbers of foreign arrivals. At present, however, most departments that do take this type of analysis seriously – and they are in the minority – do so in splendid isolation. There is no cost-saving or commonality of approach.
The Cabinet Office is struggling manfully to get colleagues in other departments to think about issues outside of their own divisions, but it has some way to go. This is a pity, because with better intelligence about what effect the media have on public opinion, the Government would be in a better position to know when to take strategic – rather than knee-jerk – action, and when to do nothing (always a favourite option of traditional government PR specialists).
The difference could be that in future, at least it would be doing nothing based on evidence.