Gunn on Politics

For newspapers the latest opinion poll or survey result can be a

There, within a couple of sentences, is a “story”, an “angle” – and
what we all yearn for – an easy “headline”. Just think of it. The
words slip into the computer. “One in three adults believe – More
than half – oppose, support, reject, want, demand, love, hate…”

How many times do we see or hear these words in the daily business
of news organisations trying to convince us that they have their
finger on the public’s pulse?

One which caught my eye lately was “Almost six in 10 children aged
16 admit to feeling stressed out”, courtesy of The Times.
Having devoted the best part of a prominent page to this story, its
leader had the grace to admit that if one asked a child whether he
or she ever feels stressed out, then the answer is more likely to
be “yes”.

Equally questionable was a survey I came across while in the
European Commission. This, produced by the EC itself, claimed that
only 0.8 per cent of adults in the new member states had a “firm
intention” to migrate in the next five years. This finding, as with
all those about the likely number of central and eastern Europeans
likely to come to Britain, are bandied around with total confidence
but with little regard, I suspect, to reality. Yet surveys are used
to dress them in some sort of authority.

What was a spate has turned into something of an epidemic of late,
aided by this government’s tendency to present research in a
tabloid-friendly two-out-of-every-three style.

Before I’m carted off to the law courts, I will confirm that the
reputable marketing companies do, of course, canvass the views of a
representative sample of “real” people.

However, we seem to have become a country governed by the latest
poll findings. What is even more scary is that some people actually
seem to believe them.

When The Independent newspaper was first founded, it had a
principle: it would never base a front page story on an opinion
poll. I believe that has changed with the times and search for
readers. More’s the pity.

Many of these surveys provide fairly harmless fun and conversation
fodder. Others engender feelings of guilt, insecurity or
inadequacy. But most worrying is the idea that some may be making
firm policy decisions based solely on such findings.

Sheila Gunn is a political commentator and a Conservative
councillor in the London Borough of Camden.

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