Has ‘rogue’ journalism cost the Mail on Sunday its reputation?

Peter KellnerPresident
September 21, 2014, 6:18 AM UTC

Has ‘rogue’ journalism cost the Mail on Sunday its reputation? - Peter Kellner's latest commentary

Oh dear. YouGov stands accused of causing mayhem. The current issue of the Mail on Sunday carries a story under the headline, Did 'rogue' poll cost Britain £45bn?. That poll was ours, for the Sunday Times, two weeks ago. Our figures showed that opponents of Scottish independence had lost the big leads they had enjoyed before the summer. We reported Yes on 51%, No 49%.

The Mail on Sunday says the consequences were far-reaching:

YouGov’s two-point lead for Scottish nationalists convinced the SNP that they were on the verge of a historic breakthrough – and caused a nervous breakdown in Westminster. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg had seen support for independence creep up in the last few weeks of the campaign, but believed it was too little too late.

The poll turned all that upside down. The three party leaders were gripped with terror that the unthinkable was about to happen: the UK was about to be broken up….

So they did what politicians do in a crisis – panicked and threw money at it. Dave and Red Ed called off their weekly joust in Prime Minister’s Questions and, Clegg in tow, scurried north to rally the pro-Union vote.

Just three days before D-Day they vowed to extend the Barnett formula, whereby Scots get £1,600 per head more from taxpayers than people in England, worth £4.5 billion a year, or £45 billion over the next decade. So much for ‘austerity Britain’.

Wow. But the Mail on Sunday recounts such drama not to praise YouGov but to justify its headline, suggesting that the panic was quite unnecessary, for the poll was wrong, as events, it says, were to prove:

Yet, when the referendum result was announced, it appeared they needn’t have worried after all. If the ‘No’ camp had won by a whisker, Cameron and co could have claimed their last-minute offer made all the difference.

Instead the ‘No’ camp won by an overwhelming ten-point margin, a 12-point turnaround from the YouGov poll 12 days earlier. It led some to ask if it was a ‘rogue poll’. One day before the referendum a YouGov poll showed the ‘No’ camp back in the lead by two points.

Interesting that. Note its description of our accusers: ‘some people’ – no names; no evidence, indeed that they were anything more than a handful of ignorant fools.

Let’s add some facts.

  • Our poll showed Yes on 51%; it secured 45%. That’s a six-point turnaround. Doubling the figure by referring to the gap is silly.
  • Those words carry the implication that YouGov was alone in saying the race was neck-and-neck. In fact, all four polling companies with experience of polling in Scotland told the same story – that the big No lead before August had collapsed. The other three were TNS, ICM and Ipsos-Mori. Our poll was merely the first.
  • Our eve-of-polling day survey showed No leading by four points not two. We then polled the same respondents on polling day, and found a further shift back from yes to No. Our final prediction, made 30 minutes after voting ended and three hours before any results were announced was that No would win by 54-46%. Ours was the most accurate of the referendum-week polls, only one point away from the 55-45% outcome.

What happened is clear, and easy to work out from the evidence. Ours was no rogue poll. The big No lead did evaporate. With two weeks to go, the race was too close to call. In the final days, Yes support slipped back, as fears of the economic consequences of independence revived. By last Wednesday, No had returned to a modest lead. On the day, that lead widened, as some Yes supporters switched sides, and No supporters proved slightly more determined to turn out.

To be fair, the Mail on Sunday ends its story by quoting me briefly explaining why ours was not a rogue poll. But though it calls its story ‘analysis’, it does not actually analyse anything.

As a recovering journalist myself, I am reminded of the parable of the reporter and the meadow, recently retold in the BBC’s excellent drama series, The Village.

A reporter encounters two men returning from the fields. He asks them what they had been doing. The first man says they have been to the meadow to cut the grass; it was now immaculate. The second man says they have done no such thing; not a blade of grass has been touched.

A bad reporter quotes just one of the men. A mediocre reporter quotes both.

A good reporter goes and looks at the sodding meadow.