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Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Guido's Chinese Whispers

I have combined and edited two recent posts to make one that I am submitting to The Conservative Woman. Here is what I have said:

“News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising,” as Randolph Hearst said. Over the last few years, growing numbers of us have become sceptical about the mainstream media, feeling that our perceptions are being managed by selection and suppression of facts, and spin.
So we season our understanding with a variety of alternative sources, many online. One such is Paul Staines, aka “Guido Fawkes,” who gives us a stream of Westminster gossip and up-to-date news. Some of us appreciate his support for Brexit, all the more valued since the Daily Mail did a savage handbrake turn when Geordie Greig took over the editorship.

But a couple of Guido’s recent posts have got me worried. I’m hoping it’s just owing to the pressure of constant publication, rather than consciously adopting the Government’s line on Johnson’s “deal.”

On 18th October, he bannered a piece with “Snap Poll: Public Want The Deal Passing” , subtitling it “Two thirds of Leave voters say Parliament should vote to accept the new Brexit deal.”

His source was a YouGov poll whose headline is very similar , but whose detail is troubling. Yes, 67% of Leave voters say they want Brexit done; but YouGov’s third table shows they feel they don’t really know enough. 31% think it is a good deal, 11% think it is bad, and 58% are neutral or undecided. This is a complex issue, one where facts do matter and as Thoreau said , “Any man more right than his neighbours constitutes a majority of one.” The general public is even more conflicted: 17% say the deal is good, 23% say bad – and since the 2016 Referendum involved everyone, not just Leavers, perhaps that should have been the headline. In Guido’s case, his headline and the subheading are at odds – the public is not the same as its Leaver element.

Does this matter? Yes, it does. You can influence people by telling them that most of their fellows think a certain way – isn’t that one of the reasons to own a newspaper? Or to infiltrate the BBC?

Cut to 21st October: Guido tells us “Brexit Party Supporters Back The Deal” and crows "Despite Nigel’s continuing opposition for opposition’s sake, it seems his usually loyal followers are abandoning him in favour of Boris’s new deal. Last man in the bunker…”

The facts? Out of 1,025 polled among the general public by Survation , a total of 15 (fifteen) Brexiteers “strongly approved” Boris’ deal. (Click on the link to see the whole thing – Guido’s stats are drawn from Sheet 3, Table 60.)

I am a little concerned that the survey was conducted on behalf of the Daily Mail – I’m sure that Survation will have done a professional job, but I wonder what the brief was; it covers a lot of ground, rather too much in my opinion.

Table 60 analyses responses to Question 26, which reads, "From what you have seen or heard about the government's Brexit deal, to what extent do you support or oppose the deal?"

Already we wonder what the respondents know – what are their sources of information, and how has it been presented? “Garbage in, garbage out,” as the techies say.

Moreover, the replies in this table are merely a subset of the total respondents - only 674 out of 1,025 - so the margin of error is greater. Even then, not all in that subset replied to all parts: the "current voting intention" line (line #1641, Columns Q-W) adds up to only 601 people, and only 596 people said how they voted in the 2016 Referendum (Columns H and I). We’re now down to a sample of less than 60% of people polled.

And Guido’s news about Brexiteers is not only cherry-picking statistics out of this reduced sample, but combining them to give a misleading impression of homogeneity of feeling. The 15 who say they intend to vote TBP next time and who "strongly supported" Boris' deal (Line 1641, Column T) are added to 36 who only "somewhat supported" it, to make a combined total of 51 people - then reported as "67% of Brexit Party supporters."

Step back: 1,025 people took part in the poll; of whom only 87 intend to vote TBP; of whom only 15 are strongly in favour of the deal. I say, if you really want to know what TBP supporters feel about Boris’ deal, do a more focused poll. 5,248,533 people voted for TBP in the 2019 European Parliament elections – there’s plenty of material there!

Using much the same approach, Guido tells us that 70% of Leave voters and 90% of Tories also back Johnson’s WA Mark 2. Is this a safe basis? I'm not inclined to think so.

In fact of ALL those who responded to question 26 and also indicated their voting intentions in the next General Election, only 137 "strongly supported" the proposed deal, and a further mere 158 "somewhat supported" it. Even adding them together - sheep with cows (Little Boy Blue, you're falling down on the job) - you get 295 people out of a total survey population of 1,025. 295 very variably informed people with probably very differently nuanced stances on their support for "deal".

I wonder what results we'd have got if respondents were restricted to those who did more than read the Daily Mail or watch BBC News, and also looked at the detailed analyses of the pros and cons of the full deal.


We need informed consent, not managed consent; so we need commentators who view sources critically and present their findings judiciously. “If you can keep your head when all around you…”

For we’re not getting the straight gen from our leaders, are we?

It would have been comical, had it not been almost tragic, to watch ex-PM Mrs May castigating the Opposition in Parliament for failing to honour the statutes they helped enact - withdrawal from the EU, and the triggering of Article 50.

Did they mean it? she asked. Well, did she, when she then came to the Commons three times with a ball-and-chain Withdrawal Agreement? Or her successor, who has returned with much the same (lipstick on a crocodile, I call it)? Or those who now call for another Referendum, with a choice of a rotten deal or Remain - the latter being the one thing that was definitively ruled out in 2016?

Guido, we need people like you to be our compass, or we shall be lost on a sea of misinformation.

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