Ongoing limited popular interest in phone hacking

The third round of oral evidence before the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press came to a conclusion last week with the current Prime Minister, David Cameron, in the witness stand.

Now Lord Leveson will have to consider the wealth of evidence and the many contracting recommendations made on the future of press regulation in the UK. The Guardian, which, in addition to breaking the Milly Dowler story last summer that started the avalanche, has covered the inquiry itself in great detail, has a nice write-up on the current situation by Dan Sabbagh. (As the joke went after Leveson said the inquiry was about “one single question: who guards the guardians.”–the answer is also simple: “the Guardian guards the guardians.”)

Much of the inquiry has been televised on various narrow news channels and the process has been talk of the town amongst media-interested parts of the chattering classes. And rightly so, in a way, since the matter of media regulation is one of considerable importance and where there is, in my view, room for improvement in the UK. (As I’ve made clear elsewhere.)

But does anyone neither directly involved nor professionally interested in the media actively care? Over the last year, I’ve used Google trends to track searches in the UK for “phone hacking” versus my random choice of celebrity baseline, “David Beckham”, to get a loose sense of this (in July 2011 and November 2011).

This metric, looking back on the spring of 2012 (see below), suggest that, despite the succession of high-profile witnesses who have taken the stand in June, including the three last Prime Ministers John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown in addition to the current one, there is (still) little popular interest in phone hacking.

This is worth keeping in mind whether one is for or against media policy reform. As it is, there is no popular outrage against what some would regard as politicians’ and judges’ allegedly attempts to meddle with the free press, nor for that matter much active support for reforming media regulation. Most people just don’t care that much.

In a best case-scenario, this relative absence of popular interest will allow lower the political stakes enough for a broad-based meaningful reform of media regulation in the UK to be possible. In a worst case scenario it will allow the issue to fade away and Lord Justice Leveson’s work to have been in vain.

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