The irony of the press criticising Michael Gove's dodgy surveys

Most PR-commissioned surveys are bunk – but it's not just Michael Gove who cites them.

Education secretary Michael Gove was roundly – and correctly – ridiculed yesterday after it emerged his criticisms of shoolchildren’s English history knowledge was based on PR research carried out by Premier Inn and UKTV Gold.

While the irony of a man looking to improve educational standards in history being himself unable to spot a compromised source is one which hasn’t escaped the attention of commentators, oddly little spotlight has been shone on the source of the dodgy data itself. Ludicrous as it is that a senior politician in a position of power could be so embarrassingly unfamiliar with acceptable standards of research, it seems remiss not to question why marketing-led data ended up in a position to be taken seriously in the first place.

The reason no questions have been raised might conceivably be due to a degree of embarrassment, given that the primary conduit for PR puff-pieces is the mainstream media itself. Take the Telegraph, who pulled no punches in deconstructing Gove’s embarrassing error - despite themselves having recently published "research" from B&Q highlighting the annoyance of neighbours mowing their lawns in the morning.

Similarly, the BBC, who also ran an account of Gove’s cock-up, only last week published a press release from pen-manufacturers Bic declaring – in the run up to exam season, naturally – that students should rely less on their lucky underwear, and instead follow advice to revise diligently… and "pack a spare pen".

Perhaps most red-faced of all ought to be the Independent – who reported merely a week ago that we lazy Brits don’t do enough walking (from research commissioned by the Ramblers Association). The paper reported the hapless Education Secretary’s reliance on PR surveys... despite having themselves published one of the very PR surveys they criticise Gove for citing. Perhaps someone at the Independent needs to be reminded what they say about having your cake and eating it.

The Daily Mail, wisely, have yet to criticise Gove – smart, given that they previously published each of the PR surveys he cited, and especially considering that in the last week alone they’ve published more than twenty two articles derived from the same questionable opinion poll mould. While the error from the Education Secretary was cringeworthy and troubling, there’s a degree of hypocrisy in the news media criticising Gove for believing what they presumably, at the time, felt was worthwhile enough to print.

The ease with which PR surveys pass into the mainstream media – and into the eager hands of Education Secretaries, it seems – would be less concerning if the research they presented was of a high standard. Unfortunately, for the majority of such opinion polls, commercial interest and crippling methodological flaws often render the results worthless.

Take, for example, three of the surveys cited by Gove, whose original press releases can be easily located: all three polls were conducted by polling company OnePoll – a prolific operator in the online opinion poll industry. It was OnePoll who recently informed us that women hate their bodies more than ever (in a survey sponsored by a dieting company), that women can’t manage money as well as men (according to a cashback website) and that men should be less lazy when it comes to doing DIY (says an entirely-impartial DIY retailer). There’s no shortage of OnePoll surveys in the news each week, yet, on examination, serious questions can be raised over their gathering of data.

OnePoll claim to have a community of over 100,000 users, with users paid around ten pence for each survey completed - with surveys regularly consisting of over a dozen questions. As moneyspinners go, it’s hardly lucrative. What’s more, users can only collect their earnings after accruing £40 - equating to roughly three hundred surveys and potentially hundreds of hours.

This low return on investment becomes an incentive to undertake as many polls as possible – and with limits to the number of users able to complete each survey, users are soon tempted to spend no time at all thinking honestly about their answers. If only the first 2,000 people earn 10p for their ten minutes of work, why be the person who lingers too long and finds they’ve wasted their time for no reward? This, combined with the ease of second-guessing the "desired" answer to screening questions (why yes, I DO have children under the age of seven…), almost certainly results in some polls being completed by users with no relationship to the subject matter and no concern for the answers they provide.

The problems don’t stop there - as any psychology student will tell you, any answer you receive can depend entirely on the question you ask and the way you ask it. Take, for instance, a question posed by OnePoll to new mothers:

Do you find you don’t actually care as much about your appearance now that you have had a baby?

A) Yes absolutely

B) No, I care, I just don’t have the time to do anything about it

C) Neither

(OnePoll, 13 May 2013, survey NH SDG 3004 VBM)

Once you pick through the positives and negatives, it’s clear that both of the first two options presume new mothers don’t take care of their appearance. While this may or may not be true, it’s not a finding which the question solicits – yet it would be easy for a PR firm (perhaps acting on behalf of a cosmetics or clothing retailer) to spin an article just as well from either response.

Similarly, multiple-choice questions can often force users into making fairly clumsy sweeping generalisations - such as the question posed to male users earlier this year:

Please be brutally honest - whose cooking do you think is better, your mum’s or your wife’s/partner’s?

(OnePoll, 1 March 2013, survey title unknown)

 

Heaven help the men faced with that choice. Yet, with a shiny 10p on the line, and no other option available, a choice had to be made… and thus, as the Daily Mail declared a fortnight later, “Over half of British men think their mums are better cooks than their partners”. Somewhat lost in the write-up is that the men in question were forced into the choice, and only marginally more than half opted for the first option on the list.

The lack of transparency of survey method and availability of actual data in the final write-up is a further issue with PR polls, and brings us neatly back to those cited by Gove. Take the finding – highlighted as the very headline of both the original press release and the Daily Mail article – that Delia Smith was married to Henry VIII: nowhere is it reported how many of the 2,000 children to take the poll actually gave this as a response. It’s perfectly plausible – if not highly likely – that the main line of the news coverage of this story was generated by only a handful of respondents choosing this rather silly option. It’s equally likely, too, that the survey wasn’t of 2,000 11-16 year olds, but of 2,000 people who said they’d had their children present, some of which may not have been telling the truth. Those screening questions are, after all, not rocket science to figure out.

Most intriguing of all, then, is the possibility that the Education Secretary criticised the ignorance of children in this country based on number of newspaper reports of a minority of errant responses given to a PR opinion poll by people who weren’t children at all. Until there’s real transparency on the data, and better control over survey methodology, there’s no real way of knowing. This survey isn’t unique in that respect – there are dozens of similar cases featured in the news each week, often with significant potential flaws.

As for Michael Gove, he ought to be more cautious about believing what he reads in the newspapers, and should learn to be more skeptical of his sources. Those who don’t learn history are doomed to ignorantly repeat things.

Michael Marshall, Vice President of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, regularly writes and lectures on the role of PR in the tabloid news. He tweets as @MrMMarsh.

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What the tragic case of Charlie Gard tells us about the modern world

People now believe medical science can perform miracles, and many search for them online.

If Charlie Gard had been born 40 years ago, there would have been no doubt about what would, and should, happen. Doctors treating a baby with a rare genetic condition that causes the body’s organs to shut down would have told his parents “nothing more can be done for him”. Charlie – deaf, epileptic, his muscles wasted, his brain probably damaged – would have died peacefully and unremarked. If an experimental US treatment had given such children an estimated 10 per cent chance of survival, his parents would not have known about it. Even if they had, they would have sorrowfully deferred to British doctors.

Now people believe that medical science can perform miracles and, through the internet, search the world for them. Yet they do not trust the knowledge and judgement of the medical profession. They rally public support and engage lawyers to challenge the doctors, as Charlie’s parents unsuccessfully did in the hope of being allowed to take their child for experimental treatment in America, despite warnings that it would be ineffective and distressing for him. This is a strange situation, the result of medical progress, social media, globalisation and the decline of deference. It causes much heartache to everybody involved but, like Charlie’s death, it is probably unavoidable.

Mogg days

A few weeks ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a 50-1 outsider for the Tory leadership. Now, as I write, he is third or fourth favourite, quoted by the bookmakers at between 6-1 and 10-1. For a few days, he was the second favourite, ahead of both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond and behind only David Davis, the clear front-runner. Perhaps Davis organised rich friends – of which I am sure he has a few – to flood the market with bets on Rees-Mogg to frighten Tory MPs into rallying behind him.

But do not write off the man dubbed “the honourable member for the early 20th century” – generously, in my view, since he looks and behaves as though he has stepped off an 18th-century country estate and he actually lives on a 17th-century one. Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiteer, would be an appropriate leader if we left the EU with no deal. Having excused ourselves from the world’s largest and most cohesive trading bloc, our best prospect for earning our living would be as a giant 18th-century theme park. Who better than Rees-Mogg to front it?

The royal revenue stream

Princess Diana is the gift that keeps on giving. TV companies produce documentaries on the anniversaries of her death and marriage. New tapes, photos and letters are unearthed. Anyone who cut her hair, cleaned her windows or sold her a frock can make a bob or two from “my memories of Diana”. Most important, Diana guarantees the future of the royal family for at least another half-century. In an ITV documentary, Prince William spoke movingly and sincerely (as did his brother, Harry) about losing a mother. Even the most hard-hearted republicans must now hesitate to deprive him also of a throne.

Strictly newsreading

I am a BBC fan. I regard the requirement, imposed by the Tories, that the corporation publishes the names and salary bands of employees paid more than £150,000 a year as an attempt to exploit “the politics of envy” of which Labour is normally accused. But I wonder if the corporation could help itself by offering even more transparency than the government demands.

It could, for example, explain exactly why Gary Lineker (£1.75m-£1.79m), Jeremy Vine (£700,000-£749,999) and Huw Edwards (£550,000-£599,999) are so handsomely paid. Do they possess skills, esoteric knowledge or magnetic attraction to viewers and listeners unavailable to other mortals and particularly to their women colleagues who are apparently unworthy of such lavish remuneration? Were they wooed by rival broadcasters? If so, which rivals and how much did they offer? Have BBC women received lower offers or no offers at all? The BBC could go further. It could invite a dozen unknowns to try doing the jobs of top presenters and commentators, turn the results into a programme, and invite viewers or listeners to decide if the novices should replace established names and, if so, at what salaries. We elect the people who make our laws and the couples who go into the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Why shouldn’t we elect our newsreaders and, come to that, Strictly’s presenters?

Mail order

A tabloid newspaper, founded in 1896 and now with its headquarters in Kensington High Street, west London, obsessed with the Islamist terror threat, convinced that it speaks for Middle England. An editor, in the chair for a quarter-of-a-century, who makes such liberal use of the C-word that his editorial conferences are known as “the vagina monologues” and whose voice is comparable to that of “a maddened bull elephant”. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Splash!, a newly published satirical novel about a tabloid newspaper from the long-serving Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover. Now I have had early sight of The Beast, due out in September, also a satirical novel about a tabloid paper, written by Alexander Starritt who briefly worked on the Mail after leaving Oxford University. Like Glover, he pays homage to Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, where the main characters worked for the Daily Beast, but there the similarities end. Glover has written what is essentially a defence of tabloid journalism. Starritt offers a fierce, blackly comic critique, though he cannot, in the end, quite avoid casting the editor Paul Dacre – sorry, Charles Brython – as a heroic, if monstrous, figure.

How many other journalists or ex-journalists are writing satirical novels about the Mail? And why the presumed public interest? Newspapers, with fewer readers than ever, are supposed to be dying. Fiction publishers seem to disagree. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue