My unexpected Twitter encounter with YouGov's Laurence Janta-Lipinski a few hours ago refreshed my memory of the exchange I had with him during the height of the referendum campaign last summer. Basically what happened was that Laurence was in a grumpy mood because such a large number of intensely stupid people were refusing to recognise that YouGov were so obviously superior to other pollsters - he posted two or three generalised tweets along those lines, and it was pretty clear he was casting around for someone to make an example of. As it happened, I had just written a post on this blog referring to YouGov's lack of transparency, and so I was chosen as the lucky victim.
Laurence challenged me to explain how YouGov were less transparent than other BPC pollsters, which was plainly supposed to be an unanswerable question. But unfortunately I did have an answer, namely that they were keeping their "Kellner Correction" figures secret - which meant that we were unable to confirm our strong suspicion that the Correction was artificially boosting the reported No lead in the firm's referendum polls by a significant amount. Instead of acknowledging that I had specifically answered his question, Laurence then started harrumphing about how, of the many unjust complaints that poor, put-upon YouGov have to listen to, criticisms about secrecy were a new one on him. So I challenged him - if he regarded his firm as being so transparent, would he now commit to releasing the Kellner Correction figures in full? And if not, why not? It turned out that his passion for answering questions was somewhat less strong than his zeal for asking them - he suddenly pompously declared that my question was much less important to him than looking after his sick one-year-old son. (Incredibly, he used almost exactly the same words again to close the exchange a few hours ago, albeit this time it was his son's dinner that was more important.)
Now, let me just step back at this point and make the obvious observation. I have no problem acknowledging that parental duties must trump everything else, but you know what? The beauty of social media is that you can respond whenever you like. You can disappear for seventeen hours, or three days, and then still answer the question, and you certainly don't have to account for what you were up to in the interim. It's very, very hard to escape the impression that the only reason Laurence randomly mentions his son when the going gets tough is the hope that any attempt to point out that he keeps evading perfectly reasonable questions can somehow be painted as a violation of his family life! In any case, he presumably already knew his son was sick at the point at which he decided to initiate the exchange, and it also has to be said that it would have taken no longer for him to actually answer me than it did for him to haughtily philosophise about the relative importance of my question and his loved ones.
Anyway, I didn't let him off the hook, and eventually he angrily told me that no, we wouldn't be getting the Kellner Correction data, and the reason (or non-reason) was that YouGov didn't have to do things at the behest of mere bloggers.
We had every cause to be hopping mad at the time about that display of arrogance, because we knew that YouGov's chief Peter Kellner carried a good deal of baggage on the subject of independence - he had been saying for years that it was quite literally impossible for Yes to win, and therefore the obvious suspicion was that he was (perhaps subconsciously) moulding his methodology in a way that would "prove" himself right. It wasn't as if these polls were being released into a sealed antechamber - they were fundamentally affecting the reporting of the referendum campaign, and essentially sucking the life out of it. Until a very late stage, there were many anecdotal reports of people saying that they were just going to vote No by default without thinking about the issues in any great depth, because they already knew what the result was going to be. That was - at least in part - YouGov's handiwork. If Kellner and co reserve the right to play God with the future of our country in that way, I don't think it's good enough for them to turn around and say "we don't have to explain ourselves to the little people".
But that point has even more force in the context of the general election campaign, because both Ofcom and the BBC have partly based their decisions over the apportionment of TV and radio coverage for each party on the basis of opinion poll data. That makes the likes of YouGov practically an official part of the electoral process - and whether they like it or not, that means the question of whether they're getting their methodology right is not just a private matter for them. Any lack of accuracy on their part has the potential to directly affect who governs us for the next five years, and therefore we have every right to demand maximum transparency, and to ask searching questions.
I'm not sure Laurence Janta-Lipinski has got that memo yet, though. His latest excuse for never having properly answered my question about the Kellner Correction was that I had "edited out a wink smiley" when I quoted him, which was "very dishonest". He attempted to grill me in Paxman-esque fashion this evening about what my despicable motive had been for excising the smiley. Seriously. This is a thing that happened. As before, though, I only got a "does not compute" message when I dared to ask him a question of my own.