Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A friendly plea to Ben Riley-Smith of the Telegraph : please get your facts straight

It says something about how dire the Telegraph's coverage of the referendum has been that an article containing several outright inaccuracies, half-truths and distortions is still somehow one of the most balanced pieces I've read there in ages. To be fair to Ben Riley-Smith ("a Telegraph political reporter covering the Scottish independence referendum") I don't think he's necessarily lying to his readers consciously - I get the impression that he's relatively unfamiliar with the Scottish political scene, and is therefore probably taking his cue from the drivel churned out by his more seasoned colleagues, who have no such excuse.

"For the last 18 months – some would say since the 1970s – the fundamentals of the Scottish independence debate haven't budged. Give or take a percentage point here or there, it's two anti-independence Scots for every one nationalist."

Ah, the old "2-1 majority" fairy-tale. Tell me, Ben, how exactly does that square with the most recent poll from ICM, the UK's "gold standard" pollster, showing support for independence at 46%, and opposition at 54%? How does it square with the most recent poll from Panelbase, showing support for independence at 43% and opposition at 57%? How does it square with even YouGov of all pollsters showing just a 3-2 majority against independence?

Numeracy really doesn't seem to be the strongest point for London media folk. And as for the "since the 1970s" bit, it's worth remembering that as long ago as 1992 there was a poll showing support for independence at 50% - a result made even more impressive by the fact that it was a multi-option poll. It was the lead headline on News at Ten (back in the days when it was a news programme), so there really is no excuse for the Telegraph not knowing about it!

"Including 16- and 17-year-olds on the ballot is a first for the UK in a major vote. Which way they'll go is largely unknown, as major polling tends to start at 18."

Actually, most of the serious pollsters are now including 16-17 year olds in their samples for referendum polling, although YouGov are still inexplicably failing to do so.

"Mr Salmond was banking on their support when he pushed to expand the ballot back in 2012, but early indications suggest that could backfire."

'Early indications' like the succession of recent polls showing that the youngest voters are in fact the most likely to back independence?

"ScotCen researchers found they were more anti-independence than other young voters, partly due to a stronger sense of British identity."

Based on research methodology that has been largely discredited.

"The only hint we've had into that rough age group came from a Glasgow University mock referendum early last year: independence was hammered by almost 2:1."

You mean "the only hint" apart from the aforementioned succession of recent polls, and several other straw polls taken after debates in schools and universities showing majorities for independence? As far as 16-17 year olds are concerned, the school straw polls tell us far more than the Glasgow University mock vote, because most university students are over 18. The student population of Glasgow University also includes a huge number of people from other parts of the UK (who we know are disproportionately likely to be No voters) and relatively few low-income people (who are disproportionately likely to be Yes voters). As I pointed out at the time, on a 'real terms' basis the Glasgow Uni mock vote was a moderately good result for the Yes campaign.

"Spin doctors from all sides agree Salmond's is a feared performer when he gets in the chamber. If he can exhibit that dominance in the debates – as was reportedly the case in 2011, helping inspire a dramatic comeback in the polls – it could yet prove the game-changer the Yes campaign have their fingers crossed for."

A very fair point, but (and I know this is unkind of me) I couldn't help but laugh at the "as was reportedly the case" bit. Does this mean that the Telegraph's referendum correspondent didn't actually see any of the 2011 debates? It's a bit like appointing a UK political editor who only read about the 2010 general election in a book (albeit that would admittedly still be a vast improvement on Tom Bradby!).

"Do you agree? Have I missed any? Thoughts welcome below."

I'd be delighted to, Ben, if only the Telegraph would enable comments on your article!

1 comment:

  1. Another masterclass in how to disembowel poor journalists who think that it really doesn't matter what they say on the referendum debate, as long as it is negative for independence.

    Once upon a time, no matter how Conservative the Telegraph was in its politics, this sloppy second rate tabloid kind of journalism would not have been tolerated.

    Clearly standards have fallen since the editorial head office was moved to Sark.