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UK government is ’losing the battle for public opinion’


Nearly half the British population - 46% -claim to have changed their minds about the war with Iraq, new research by academics at Cardiff University has shown.

While 83% said they "supported allied forces" during the war, only 44% now say they support the decision to go to war with Iraq.

Researchers in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, conducted a detailed nationwide survey of more than 1,000 adults, to explore the shifting nature of public opinion towards the war. Their study goes beyond recent polls to analyse not only who has changed their minds, but when and why.

They identified three main groups of "switchers":
  • The largest group are those – nearly 30% of the overall sample - who supported the war while it was happening, but did not support it either before or afterwards. Of this group, nearly half – 49% - said they changed their minds temporarily because of the need to support the troops during wartime.

  • The second largest group of switchers – 9% overall - supported the war before the conflict but now oppose it. This group is motivated by different reasons, chiefly the failure to find “weapons of mass destruction” and the lack of evidence to support the need for war, as well as the sense that they had been misled by the government.

  • The smallest group of switchers – 6% of the overall sample – have moved the other way. This group did not support the war beforehand but do so now. Here the main reasons given are the benefits to Iraqis of "regime change", echoing the government’s line that, whatever the controversy surrounding weapons of mass destruction, Iraqis are now better off without Saddam Hussein.

"The support won during the Iraq War now looks increasingly like a pyrrhic victory, drowned out by questions about both the motives and the consequences of British involvement," said Professor Justin Lewis.

"The picture that emerges overall, however, is not promising for the government. Those now persuaded of the merits of the war are at least cancelled out by those who have withdrawn their support for it amidst the unanswered questions about how the war was justified. And most of those who didn’t support it beforehand, no longer feel bound by the need to support the troops, and have reverted to their sceptical stance."

What part has death of Dr David Kelly and the Hutton Inquiry played in all this? Most people – 89% - said they were aware of what the researchers described as "the Kelly affair", and nearly one in five (19%) said that it had influenced their opinion about the war. The Hutton Inquiry, in this sense, may well serving as a reminder for those who feel they have been misled.

The role of the media

Despite the recent row about Andrew Gilligan, the survey – conducted in the middle of the Hutton Inquiry - suggests that the BBC is still widely regarded as having been the most trusted source of information during the war. When asked "which media outlet gave the best, most informed coverage", 47% chose BBC news programmes - far and away the most popular choice, and more than 4 times the number choosing ITV News.

While a long way behind the BBC, Sky also did well– nominated as best source by 12.5% in the survey. The internet, on the other hand was nominated by only 0.2% suggesting that the contention of recent years about the internet replacing conventional news sources may be overblown.

Despite recent criticisms, the BBC is the most favoured source for both war supporters and opponents alike. Those who preferred Sky, on the other hand, are three times more likely to be war supporters than war sceptics. This suggests, according to Professor Lewis, that “if partisanship is creeping into broadcasting, it may be coming from Sky rather than the BBC.”

The study confounds those who argue that the media should be patriotic rather than impartial during wartime - 92% feel that "TV news should try to be objective and impartial when covering war", and only 5% disagree. This applies equally to both war supporters and opponents. And despite the partisanship of most newspapers, 88% think the Press should also be objective and impartial (with, once again, only 5% disagreeing).

The profile of supporters and sceptics

The survey also revealed some interesting differences emerge between those who now take pro-war and anti-war positions.

  • While Mirror readers are now mostly in the anti-war camp, and even the pro-war Mail has more anti-war than pro-war readers, it is readers of Murdoch’s Sun who are more dramatically tilted in favour of the war than any other readers. Sun readers who still support the war outnumber opponents by more than 2 to 1.

  • War supporters also appear to have more faith in the information they receive than war opponents. The anti-war people in the sample were much less likely to trust the information being reported about the war: 42% of war supporters felt most information to be trustworthy, compared with only 28% of the anti-war group. Conversely, only 20% of war supporters distrusted the information they were getting, compared with 30% of those who were against the war.

  • The study indicates that the stereotyping of war opponents as young and middle class appears to be a myth. War supporters and opponents are fairly evenly spread by age and socio-economic class - although interestingly, the most anti-war sections of the population seem to be at the top and bottom ends of the socio-economic scale. However, as other surveys have shown, there is a gender gap, with 57% of women now opposing the war, compared with 48% of men.

The members of the Iraq war research group are Professor Justin Lewis, Professor Terry Threadgold, Dr. Rod Brookes, Kisten Brander, Nick Mosdell and Sadie Clifford.

Prof Justin Lewis | EurekAlert!

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