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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A father’s murderous rage, the first victims of mass killers and Trump’s phantom campaign

From the family courts to the US election campaigns.

On 21 June, Ben Butler was found guilty of murdering his six-year-old daughter, Ellie. She had head injuries that looked like she’d been in a car crash, according to the pathologist, possibly the result of being thrown against a wall. Her mother, Jennie Gray, 36, was found guilty of perverting the course of justice, placing a fake 999 call after the girl was already dead.

When the trial first started, I clicked on a link and saw a picture of Ben and Ellie. My heart started pounding. I recognised them: as a baby, Ellie had been taken away from Butler and Gray (who were separated) after social services suggested he had been shaking her. He had been convicted of abuse but the conviction was overturned on appeal. So then he wanted his daughter back.

That’s when I spoke to him. He had approached the Daily Mail, where I then worked, to tell his story: a father unjustly separated from his beloved child by uncaring bureaucracy. I sent a writer to interview him and he gave her the full works, painting himself as a father victimised by a court system that despises men and casually breaks up families on the say-so of faceless council apparatchiks.

The Mail didn’t run the story; I suspect that Butler and Gray, being separated, didn’t seem sufficiently sympathetic. I had to tell him. He raged down the phone at me with a vigour I can remember half a decade later. Yet here’s the rub. I went away thinking: “Well, I’d be pretty angry if I was falsely ­accused and my child was taken away from me.” How can you distinguish the legitimate anger of a man who suffered a miscarriage of justice from the hair-trigger rage of a violent, controlling abuser?

In 2012, a family court judge believed in the first version of Ben Butler. Eleven months after her father regained custody of her, Ellie Butler was dead.

 

Red flags

Social workers and judges will never get it right 100 per cent of the time, but there does seem to be one “red flag” that was downplayed in Ben Butler’s history. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to assaulting his ex-girlfriend Hannah Hillman after throttling her outside a nightclub. He also accepted a caution for beating her up outside a pub in Croydon. (He had other convictions for violence.) The family judge knew this.

Butler also battered Jennie Gray. As an accessory to his crime, she will attract little sympathy – her parents disowned her after Ellie’s death – and it is hard to see how any mother could choose a violent brute over her own child. However, even if we cannot excuse her behaviour, we need to understand why she didn’t leave: what “coercive control” means in practice. We also need to fight the perception that domestic violence is somehow different from “real” violence. It’s not; it’s just easier to get away with.

 

Shooter stats

On the same theme, it was no surprise to learn that the Orlando gunman who killed 49 people at a gay club had beaten up his ex-wife. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, looked at FBI data on mass killings and found that 16 per cent of attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence, and 57 per cent of the killings included a family member. The Sandy Hook gunman’s first victim was his mother.

 

Paper candidate

Does Donald Trump’s presidential campaign exist if he is not on television saying something appalling about minorities? On 20 June, his campaign manager Corey Lew­andowski quit (or was pushed out). The news was broken to the media by Trump’s 27-year-old chief press officer, Hope Hicks. She was talent-spotted by The Donald after working for his daughter Ivanka, and had never even volunteered on a campaign before, never mind orchestrated national media coverage for a presidential candidate.

At least there aren’t that many staffers for her to keep in line. The online magazine Slate’s Jamelle Bouie reported that Trump currently has 30 staffers nationwide. Three-zero. By contrast, Bouie writes, “Team Clinton has hired 50 people in Ohio alone.” Trump has also spent a big fat zero on advertising in swing states – though he would argue his appearances on 24-hour news channels and Twitter are all the advertising he needs. And he has only $1.3m in his campaign war chest (Clinton has $42.5m).

It feels as though Trump’s big orange visage is the facial equivalent of a Potemkin village: there’s nothing behind the façade.

 

Divided Johnsons

Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the Johnson family Christmas celebrations. As Boris made much of his late conversion to Leave, the rest of the clan – his sister Rachel, father Stanley and brothers, Leo and Jo – all declared for Remain. Truly, another great British institution torn apart by the referendum.

 

Grrr-eat revelations

The highlight of my week has been a friend’s Facebook thread where she asked everyone to share a surprising true fact about themselves. They were universally amazing, from suffering a cardiac arrest during a job interview to being bitten by a tiger. I highly recommend repeating the experience with your own friends. Who knows what you’ll find out? (PS: If it’s juicy, let me know.)

Peter Wilby is away

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain