Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Can someone please explain to STV how debates are supposed to work?

Try to imagine a tennis umpire saying something like this -

"Advantage Djokovic.  Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Federer is challenging the call, on the left-hand baseline.  The ball was called out.

Call stands.  Advantage Djokovic.  Incidentally, ladies and gentlemen, I've just heard from the commentary box that John McEnroe feels that the Federer backhand is under severe pressure, and that the Swiss player has it all to do if he's not going to be broken in this game.  Word is also coming through from Ladbrokes that the odds on a Djokovic win have tightened since I announced that the Federer backhand is under pressure.  Play."

Or how about the moderator of a US presidential debate saying something like this -

"Each candidate will be allowed a two-minute introductory statement, and a three-minute closing statement.  I will also ensure that the time they receive to answer my questions is roughly equal.  We do have an audience present but they have agreed to remain silent.  Governor Romney won the toss and chose to make his introductory statement first, but before we go to him, let's have a look at our exclusive Gallup poll!  It shows that 57% of Americans feel that Governor Romney is smug, arrogant and out-of-touch.  Looks like you're fighting a losing battle here, Governor Romney, but feel free to give it a go anyway.  The floor's all yours."

Are you starting to see the point?  That would never happen in a million, zillion years, but what STV are planning for this evening isn't far short of such lunacy.  First of all, they shouldn't be starting a debate with a poll, full stop.  Debates are supposed to provide a neutral environment and an entirely level playing field for both sides to make their case, and for viewers to weigh up the arguments without the intrusion of extraneous factors.  It defeats the whole purpose if the debate's moderator informs viewers right at the outset that one side is "winning", and it self-evidently unbalances the playing-field.

But it's even worse that that, because this is a very unusual campaign in respect of the polling landscape.  In their leaders' debate at the start of the 2011 Holyrood campaign, STV did exactly the same thing (and as you can see here, I criticised them for it at the time), but at least their poll was reasonably representative of what all the pollsters were showing in that campaign.  The only real outlier in 2011 was YouGov, who were far too Labour-friendly.  But this time around, there is a huge disparity between different pollsters, and by choosing Ipsos-Mori - one of the two most No-friendly pollsters - STV are making a hugely political decision with huge political consequences.  They may not have admitted that to themselves, but that's the position.

To put it in perspective, the highest Yes vote that Ipsos-Mori have found at any point during this campaign is just 40%.  All but one of the firm's polls have put it below 40%.  Contrast that with ICM, Panelbase and Survation, all of whom at various times have put Yes as high as 47% or 48%.  Even YouGov and TNS-BMRB have had Yes as high as 42% and 44% respectively.  So if Bernard Ponsonby starts the debate by pointing to the poll and echoing his words of last night that "Alex Salmond has it all to do because No have a big poll lead", what he'll really mean is "Alex Salmond has it all to do IF our own house pollster is the most accurate, but nobody knows whether they are".  Will viewers realise that they're only being given half the story (if that)?  Some will, but most won't.

I should emphasise that it's a very good thing that STV commission polls - if they weren't doing it, we'd have no telephone polls at all in this campaign, which would be extremely unhealthy.  But there's a time and a place for everything, and the time and place for polls is in a news programme, not in a debate that is supposed to help people decide how they want to vote, as opposed to telling them how they are supposedly going to vote.

*  *  *

One thing I'll be looking out for is the sample size of the Ipsos-Mori poll.  If it's a standard sample of 1000, it won't explain why we've heard so many people report that they've been interviewed by the firm recently, because that certainly hasn't happened during previous STV polls (but of course it did happen during the UK government-commissioned mega-polls).  I still have suspicions that there may have been more than one Ipsos-Mori poll in the field over the last few days - although if tonight's sample turns out to be 5000+, it would probably solve the mystery.


  1. LordSayNoToYesMenMSPAugust 5, 2014 at 1:58 PM

    So if they return less than 40% YES vote you can all go "Boo! Boo! Unionist shill! This poll is a pile of biased ordure! Boo!"

    But if YES get above 40% you can go "YES! What a fantastically accurate poll! This shows the tide is with us!"

    Is that called having your cake and eating it?

  2. LordSayNoToYesMenMSP : Regardless of what the poll shows, I will point out that Ipsos-Mori are a No-friendly pollster and tend to produce a Yes vote of well below the average.

    Hope that helps.

  3. Whatever the pre-debate poll shows the unionist media will hail it as good news for the No campaign. Only later, when sites like this and WOS, analyse the figures, will the true significance emerge. By then of course the unionist media will have moved on to another scare story. Thank God for the internet.

  4. Doesn't matter what the poll says - the main point is that citing it at all will artificially skew the debate one way or the other.

  5. To be honest, I'm more interested in the poll than the debate. I've already long ago made up my mind on how I'm voting (As I'm sure just about everyone else on this site has) so I see little point in sitting through two hours of sheer tedium. Once I see the poll result (Most likely on here due to the always prompt response to the latest polls) I'll go and watch something much more enjoyable!

  6. Totally disagree, Stoat - Alex Salmond is the greatest political talent of his generation, and he's facing his most important ever debate. It doesn't get much more riveting than that.

    I also doubt if it's true that everyone on this site has long since made up their minds - that might be true of commenters, but there'll be at least some undecided lurkers.

  7. I don't doubt Alex Salmond's clear political talents, but I just can't stand listening to political debates, regardless of the calibre of the debaters. Same reason I never watch either PMQs or FMQs. A golden rule I've always followed through life is never to listen to the words of politicians. Though that's obviously more a matter of personal preference.

    Fair point about the undecideds. I lurk from time to time on Wings Over Scotland, which is hardly renowned as a haunt for No voters like myself!

  8. I hate TV debates too but a TV debate preceded by a poll undertaken by a pollster known to produce some of the most No-friendly results is absurd. A poll before a debate is completely bonkers.

  9. Though I must say that I do agree with all the misgivings voiced about presenting poll results from one of the most No-friendly pollsters around. It isn't exactly conducive to an impartial debate.

  10. I hate to be puerile about it but, I'm rather hoping for some sort of breakdown/conniption from Darling.

    If Salmond cannot hammer home the notion that Better Together have got NOTHING in terms of positive meaningful debate, then I'll dye my eye brows white.

    (They're already black.)

  11. Excellent blog post and completely agree.

    If there is to be any poll. It should be a before/after with the undecideds in the audience. Of course, we've all seen what happens in that scenario throughout Scotland when faced with a yes/no debate. ;) So, I doubt we'll see STV doing that.
    I noticed BBC and their Newsnight special from the border back in early 2014 did one and it returned a Yes win. I don't think we've had one since!

    Tonight is a bit of a no win situation for Eck. The media/bookies have him down as favourite so the pressue is all of Darling, and he'll have the bonus of this IPSOS-Mori poll giving them at least a healthy lead.
    Hopefully we can see Darling get flustered, but I fear he'll cluster it down much like Carmicheal, Lamont did on their previous ones.

  12. James why do you think Alex Salmond has agreed to the format?, that is, having a poll before the debate? Surely he would have had some input in to how the programme was structured and therefore must have agreed to the format.

  13. Stoat: "I just can't stand listening to political debates"

    Aye, sounds about right, Stoat, I've found that most no-voters are closed minded and refuse to listen to debate.

  14. Stuart : I don't know. Possibly STV regard such matters as being technically outwith the format of the debate, and therefore didn't include it in the negotiations.

  15. According to Craig Murray, IpsosMori have picked the audience. That stinks of a get out for STV if the audience is loaded with Unionists.

  16. I've already said that STV trying to tell the scottish public what they think before the debate even starts is laughably inept and patronising, but it's still far more likely to annoy undecideds than make their minds up for them.

    To add to the comedy having Nick Clegg sign a pledge over DevoTiny along with his well trusted chums Cameron and little Ed is as sure a sign as you're going to get that panic is setting in to the No campaign.

    One of the most telling questions that could be aimed at Darling for tonight would be if he trusts Cameron and Clegg's pledges and if so why does he think Clegg and the lib dems demanded Darling should resign over his expenses scandal?

    Of course that won't happen and Darling will just keep parroting the same old "too poor, too wee and too stupid" scaremongering he and labour have for decades.

    What will be unavoidable though is that this first debate will begin the final process of crystalising all the subjects into one of trust.

    There is no way this debate will be anything other than two competing and opposed views of scotland's future and who should be in charge of it. So when all the stat throwing has been forgotten the scottish public will quite obviously have to choose who they trust the most to look after the interests of the scottish public. The westminster establishment or the scottish parliament.

    Happily Labour tories and the lib dems have decided that having Clegg sign a panic pledge along with Cameron and little Ed just before this debate was a jolly clever idea. Just in case the scottish public were in any doubt what more of the same will mean.

    Pledges of tiny amounts of jam tomorrow from three political leaders even the rUK public holds in contempt and does not trust.

  17. Your point is well made but if the SG have not clearly defined the terms of the debate so that no 'bias' is possible Hell mend them!
    I, amongst others I am sure, made this point to the SNP after the last two debates that Nicola 'enjoyed ' with Sarwar and Lamont poisoning the well to their advantage!
    Please God they have set this up properly. However the use of IPSOS MORI suggests otherwise

  18. ITV reporting a 14% gap so a 4% gain for yes looking likely

  19. While we're at, I must say it was generous of Darling's better together boss Cameron to highlight that he and Osborne are still a pair of out of touch incompetent fops in charge of an Eton chumocracy. Something that the resignation of Warsi highlights so acutely.

    Always remember that these inept twits not only want you to trust scotland's future with Darling, (the man in charge of Labour's economic crash which some tories have mysteriously forgotten) but they want scots to trust Cameron Osborne and the tory party's promises. This while there are still more pandas than tory MPs.

    Good luck with that twits.

  20. Oh dear! if you are a Unionist and have been trusting the polling figures from Ipsos Mori, please look away now!

    It's being reported on Twitter that a family were contacted by the field team working for IpsosMori, They specifically wanted someone within the 17 to 20 age group as they were hugely unrepresented by this group.

    Ipsos were informed that the family did have a son who was in this age group, but that he wouldn't be home for about an hour and a half.
    Ipsos said they would phone back as they needed people in this group.

    Ipsos phoned back and spoke to the young man and started by asking him if he would be voting in the ref and how he would vote, He replied, that he would be voting Yes.

    The Ipsos person told him to hold for a moment, but he could still hear the person, and they spoke to their line manager, telling him that the young man was a Yes voter.

    The young man could then hear the Manager telling the Ipsos field worker, to tell the young man that their was a technical problem and that Ipsos would phone back!!!

    At the time of the tweet 4 hours had passed and Ipsos hadn't phoned back.

    I think this story might have legs.
    Can we have our first expose, on our hands?

  21. Sorry James, can you delete these extra copies please.

  22. Brian : I have a horrible feeling the 14% gap refers to the Poll of Polls in the Independent, not to tonight's poll.

  23. Arise Sir Bernard!