What represents public opinion?

Ages and generations become known by what was achieved that changed the world. Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle helped make the Seventeenth Century become known as the Age of Reason. The Victorian era was marked by innovation and conquest in the Age of Industry and Empire. Our generation is surely to be known as the Age of Technology and Electronic Communication. But it is also the Age of Opinion. In the UK, whoever you are, you have a right to an opinion and a plethora of platforms to voice it – Facebook, Twitter, The Blogosphere, Texting, Email and on Television and Radio. Nothing today has credibility if it ignores ‘public opinion’. But what bastion of preordained authority is the best representation of public opinion? Do the politicians represent public views? Does the tabloid press mirror national character and does the BBC reflect regional diversity?

In the last few months these questions have been called into doubt more than ever. Public ‘confidence’ and ‘trust’ have been continually beset by ‘Scandals’ and ‘Fiascos’. They’ve all been at it; More MPs tampering with their expenses; The Phone Hacking Scandal and The BBC’s very own Newsnight horror shows.

For your average on-looker these three groups appear to exist in a separate world where public opinion is of their own creation and not a true reflection of politics, mood or culture. The recent BBC scandals provide an excellent talking point to cross reference these three bodies and question whether the Tabloid Press, MPs in Parliament or the BBC represent the public and public opinion.

At first glance, given the recent furore, it might appear that the BBC is the institution that has betrayed the public the most. Supposedly, we have all lost confidence and trust in the institution that we, the people, fund through the television license fee. The editorial oversight and poor journalistic decision making on Newsnight that led to the misinformed allegations that the Tory peer, Lord McAlpine, was involved in a pedophile ring in South Wales was inexcusable. Rightly this has brought shame to BBC News. In a similar way the decision not to run the Jimmy Savile programme on Newsnight ended up being a disastrous one. In both cases these bad decisions have caused pain and hurt to some members of the public. The BBC has certainly lost some credibility as a purveyor of high quality investigative journalism and has disappointed the public in some way.

But as an institution as a whole, as a public body, was the wrongdoings of a few members of staff associated with one area of the corporation worthy of the all-encompassing vitriolic assault it was dealt by the media and MPs? Most importantly was it worthy of the resignation (and effective sacking) of the Director General George Entwistle?

At times of systemic crisis in a public institution it is often the case that to satisfy ‘public opinion’ the chief, or in this case, Director General, has to go. But was the sacking of Entwistle conforming to popular opinion at all? Who were the people demanding that he go? Who felt that it was his fault that poor editorial decisions were made?

The answer is the Tabloid Press and MPs. They took it upon themselves, as ‘voices of the people’, to accuse the BBC in its entirety of destroying public trust and letting the country down. ‘Bye Bye Chump’ was the headline in the Sun in reference to the departure of the former D-G, Entwistle. Although the institutional pressures from within the BBC were a factor in his departure, the attitude of the press towards him and the corporation in general was just as important.

There is a problem. The tabloids claim to put together stories of public interest and public opinion without any care or interest of the public at all. As a result their sensationalism can also shape opinion. Newspapers are businesses that have an aim to sell papers and to make money. Of course no one from Fleet Street is forcing you to buy from them or listen to them, but they impact on public bodies who actually do have an interest in representing this country, like the BBC, ironically. As the phone hacking scandal revealed earlier this year, the press have become a law unto themselves.

MPs have also played a role in the recent BBC fiascos. I would salute some MP’s positions on the matter that the BBC must not lose their independence and also salute some who have stated in the Commons that the victims of child abuse must not be forgotten. This, is public opinion. However all too often, MPs are no better than the press as self-promoting machines.

More than any other section of society, MPs ought to best represent public opinion. They certainly lead the country; for better or for worse is a matter of opinion. This is not the point, however. The House of Commons is a vehicle for public debate via the voices of the individually elected mouths of MPs. But, I believe, MPs are all too often motivated by sheer one-upmanship and political point scoring. They squabble like children over public issues to ‘get one over’ the opposite team. Debate in the Commons becomes essentially useless. One Minister will suggest a public inquiry into, say, something quite important like how the police handle claims of child sex abuse. The opposition will say ‘NO!, what a terrible idea!…. We need an overarching inquiry, not an internal inquiry…Ha! We do not support you’.

If the country is in various states of crisis, which it constantly appears to be, how useful is this verbal political jousting? Or more importantly how does this mirror public opinion? It does not. Political point scoring is born out of self-interest and self-promotion and put plainly it is a waste of time which threatens to poison our political system.

So back to the question – what best represents public opinion? The BBC, more than the other two groups in question, represents a diverse number of grassroots opinions. They culturally represent the country much more than the Press and certainly more than MPs. Public opinion is well represented in television and film because it is created without any competitive ulterior motive. I would argue that public opinion doesn’t really exist in the public consciousness, apart from obvious manifestations and outcries at protests, sporting occasions, Comedy Clubs and maybe some acts of election.

You could also argue that public opinion doesn’t really exist as a represented entity– it is too complex a concept. I’m shooting myself in the foot a bit here because this means my article is a bit futile – there is no winner! But by accepting that public opinion is not easily defined or represented, we will not accept those who claim to blanket public opinion, to claim it as a uniform concept and those who profit off the back of it.

It is worrying to look at our society and see the Press and MPs mirroring each other in their ability to name call and to put-down in the pursuit of self-promotion. The BBC, The Press and MPs should remain separate and should each be revered proportionally to their own station and scrutinized by the public. They also have a role, particularly our elected Member of Parliament, of putting their own interests aside and concentrate on steering the country with its public solely in its minds.