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Monday, April 16, 2007

You say 'pollster', I say propaganda...

This is my first proper article for Guido 2.0 (also posted over at my usual 'hunting ground', the Ministry of Truth) to which I'll be contributing as and when I find the time (and Paul Staines is up to something that particularly piques my interest). As should, hopefully, be clear from my brief 'hello world' post, my real interest lies in the nature and use of spin and propaganda, which means that most of what I post here is likely to be directed towards deconstructing and debunking Staines' incessant stream of political innuendo - showing you exactly how he bends the truth to advance his personal/political agenda.

For this article my focus will be three recent posts by Staines all of which relate to a market research company called Opinion Leader Research, of which the joint Chief-Executive is one Deborah Mattinson, who Staines describes as 'Gordon's personal pollster'. What I will be doing is fisking each of these three posts to show both where Staines has made basic errors of fact and where he has (deliberately) misrepresented certain matters in order to paint a picture of possible 'corruption' without the slightest shred of evidence to support such innuendos.

So let's start at the beginning with this post from 26th Feb 2007:

Smith Institute's Mattinson Spins Poll for Brown

The Brownites are obviously getting increasingly desperate about his bad personal poll ratings versus Cameron. The Guardian/ICM survey last week showing Brown 13% adrift of Cameron (worse than Blair) shook Labour MPs at a vital time and led to renewed calls for Labour to skip a generation with Miliband.

A week later comes the Brownite response, today's Guardian reports on a survey of a hundred "opinion leaders" which shows Gordon outperforming Dave on a whole range of indicators - scoring a modest 92% on integrity.

Okay, that's fine so far - all factually correct if somewhat meaningless - comparing a public opinion poll to a survey of 100 'opinion leaders' is something of an 'apples and oranges' comparison, which would be a fair point to make - but then fair points are hardly Staines' style.

Who conducted this highly scientific "survey"? None other than Opinion Leader Research run by Deborah Mattinson, the long time Labour Party consultant who is now Gordon Brown's unofficial pollster and sits on the advisory committee of the Smith Institute - alongside the veteran U.S. pollster Bob Shrum. It was Shrum's anti-Cameron advice to the Sith that forced the Charity Commission's official investigation. Guido wonders why a non-partisan, non-political, educational charity has so many pollsters involved?

Mattinson does, indeed, sit on the advisory committee of the Smith Institute, as do 12 other people including Lord Whitty - now of the National Consumer Council but once the General Secretary of the Labour Party - Polly Toynbee of the Guardian and several academics...

...but not Bob Schrum, who is actually a research fellow at the Smith Institute and not a member of the advisory committee at all.

This paragraph also introduces what you will soon see is a standard theme of Staines' posts about Mattinson and OLR, in which he refers to both as 'pollsters'.

This, certainly in the case of OLR, is deliberate and misleading spin.

What does 'Pollster' mean to you? To many, if not most people it implies the kind of telephone survey-based political opinion polls that one gets bombarded with in the press, especially in the run to an election - the kind that asked people how they intend to vote or what they think of particular government policy. Indeed that's exactly what Staines wants people to think because that would raise genuine questions about quite why the Smith Institute would have such a company involved in its work.

Look, however, at what OLR actually does - for which one simply has to visit its website - and one finds that very little of its work is survey-based and/or relates to questions of public/political opinion. Like most market research companies it offers a wide range of research services including focus group studies and even citizen juries - services that are clearly relevant to a non-partisan, non-political, educational charity that carries out research into matters of public policy.

'Pollster' is no where near being close to adequate describing the full scope of OLR's work and is used by Staines to promote a deliberately narrow view of its activities of a kind that aims to mislead his readers into thinking that a company that carries out a wide range of research for clients using techniques that are applicable to many different areas of research does nothing more than surveys of political opinion that are limited application to the government. This, if one looks at OLRs portfolio of clients/research is anything but the case.

Mattinson has plenty of previous, she was wheeled out by the dark forces of the Sith the last time Brown's negative ratings caused rumblings. Popping up in the Times with an article claiming, ironically, that it was all spin and that Gordon is in fact a popular guy.

Of course surveying "opinion leaders" is completely subjective and easily manipulated to give the required answers. Mattinson's clients know it, but since her clients include Defra, the Department of Education and Science, the Department for Work and Pensions and coincidentally HM Treasury, you can be sure she knows where her bread is buttered and what they want to hear.

Most if not all forms of research can be readily manipulated to produce specific outcomes by a wide range of methods from how the research is constructed and carried out to how the results are interpreted and presented - in fact there is a massive body of literature in the sciences and social sciences on just this subject. The fact that research can easily be biased towards a particular outcome proves nothing without evidence to show a particular piece of research actually is biased.

What Staines fails to show here is any evidence that would support an assertion that OLR is producing, or has produced, deliberately biased or misleading research for, or on behalf of, its clients - there is no substance to his claims here, merely innuendo of a kind that one could level at any market research company working for any client at any time if one disapproves of the client or disagrees with the outcome of the research. It's the stuff of conspiraloons and tinfoil helmets, which is entirely appropriate for Staines' website as it does at least demonstrate that he knows his audience - he is writing primarily for people whose inclination is to believe the worst of the government irrespective of whether there is any evidence to back up such assertions and feeding them exactly what they want to hear. Whether there is any evidence to back his claims is, at best, a secondary consideration and more often than not a complete irrelevance.

Anyone with any common sense, of course, would ask to see some concrete evidence before accepting that such a claim is anything other than a bit of 'smoke and mirrors' propaganda, especially when faced with such an obvious straw man argument.

Is Guido the only one who has noticed that in times of need, Gordon's pollster conducts polls with dubious methodologies which she then writes up in hagiographical pro-Gordon articles?

Well that's really up to Mattinson to decide whether to do that kind of research and write those kinds of articles, for newspaper editors to decide whether to publish the results of her polls and the readers of those newspapers to decide how much credence to give them - is there any material difference between Mattinson talking up Brown and the Telegraph talking up Cameron or are most of us well aware of where the print media's various political biases lie and take pretty much everything with a pinch of salt. Again we have innuendo but no evidence to support the assertion.

Is Guido the only one who thinks there might, in the circumstances, be a serious conflict of interest in her not only sitting on the board of the Smith Institute but also having HM Treasury as a paying client? Who commissioned and paid for this survey of "opinion leaders"? How did she get the HM Treasury contract? Was it by competitive tender?

One quick error of fact to correct - Mattinson doesn't sit on the Smith Institute's board, she's a member of an advisory committee, which is a very different thing.

As for whether or not a conflict of interest exists if and when OLR tenders for government contracts, well yes the potential does exist but then it always exists whenever anyone with an association with a party in government tenders for a government contract. That's why governments have stringent tendering procedures to prevent such conflicts influencing decisions and everything from the National Audit Office and Audit Commission to the Public Accounts Committee to scrutinise such processes to ensure that they are handled equitably and without bias or political interference.

Once again, Staines is peddling innuendo without any evidence to back up an assertion of corruption, despite the fact that had he any evidence to offer he would be perfectly free to raise his 'concerns' with the National Audit Office or the Public Accounts Committee, both of whom have the authority to investigate such matters.

Guido has asked them repeatedly this morning who commissioned the poll, but nobody at Opinion Leader Research seems to know...

UPDATE : Guido has just noticed that The Sun this morning headlines Deborah's "survey" Brown is back in poll victory. Will that do Gordon?

I'm sure it will, but this is irrelvant - although it does lead us neatly in Staines' second post on OLR, some two days later, in which he gets a reply to his questions:

Pollster's Answers Lead to More Questions

Opinion Leader Research have got back to Guido and they say nobody paid for that research. They just asked questions slanted to favour Gordon for no particular reason.

There are one or two omissions of fact here that need to be explained before we move on.

The ICM poll that put Cameron 13% ahead of Brown was conducted on 16th-18th Feb 2007 and reported in the Guardian on 20th Feb.

The OLR survey of 'opinion leaders' was conducted between 15th and 20th Feb and hit the press on the 26th Feb - so the poll was completed on the same day that news of Cameron's apparent 13% lead over Brown was published with the research having started the day before the ICM poll began.

That hardly supports the idea that OLR's poll was a 'response' to the ICM poll, given that OLR started its research the day before ICM started asking questions for its survey - and in any case the two are very different polls with very different methodologies, which hardly makes them comparable in any meaningful sense.

As for the claim that OLR's questions were biased toward Brown, what OLR actually asked was whether the respondents in its survey (20 senior execs in the city, 20 in major companies, 20 in NGOs, 20 in the media and 20 in politics and government) thought Brown and Cameron:

1. Believe in what they say

2. Have integrity

3. Lack real substance

4. Understand ordinary life, and

5. Would set this country in a better direction as Prime Minister.

And okay, one could well argue that question 4 is a tad biased given that everyone knows that Cameron is a scion of the aristocracy but as for the other four questions, its interesting to see Staines suggesting that questions about whether Cameron believes in what he says and has integrity and real substance are biased against him and in favour of Brown. That's actually quitea remarkable assertion when one comes to think about - please don't ask about Cameron's integrity, its an unfair question (???). Hardly a ringing endorsement of Cameron is it?

They also say they won their lucrative HM Treasury contract and the Bank of England contract in a competitive tendering process.

They won't say why the Treasury needs pollsters, what they poll about, or how much they have been paid.

Guido could understand if the Treasury needed statisticians, but pollsters? Perhaps the Bank of England would be interested in measuring, say for example, people's inflation expectations, but their opinions? If public money has been spent by the Treasury on pollsters who have asked questions that assist Gordon in his personal political ambitions, that would be a massive breach of the Ministerial Code bordering on corruption. If it were to be proved that the payments to do something innocuous were effectively a hidden subsidy covering the costs of doing polling on issues of interest to Gordon Brown for no particular reason it would be scandalous.

Actually both of Staines' questions are easy to answer on the basis of minimal research - it took me 10 minutes or so armed only with Google and Hansard, so its not that hard to find.

OLR did not actually do any 'polling' for the Treasury at all - because that was not what the contract they had in March 2006 was about. What they actually did is described here, on their own website where everyone can see it...

This research was commissioned by HM Treasury, on behalf of the Financial Inclusion Taskforce and its overall aim was to develop greater understanding of financial exclusion from the consumer perspective. In particular, the study was tasked with exploring the demand-side barriers to mainstream banking and to gain consumer views on how banking and credit services can be made more appropriate and accessible.

Four half day workshops were conducted across England, Scotland and Wales. Each workshop was attended by 40 people who were recruited according to quotas set to reflect the characteristics of the financially excluded.

Participants worked in groups to discuss their experiences and explore solutions. The research materials were designed using Easy Read stimulus to ensure they were accessible and engaging. Keypad quantitative technology was used to gather views and feed these back instantaneously; this process helped to engender a sense of collaboration amongst people in the workshop.

That's not a 'poll' at all, nor is it inappropriate research for the Treasury to be undertaking, as Staines is trying to suggest - and it certainly isn't backdoor opinion polling for Gordon Brown either.

What it is, is a perfectly legitimate series of focus group studies for a policy development taskforce looking at what, for some, is a very important issue - demand-side barriers to accessing mainstream banking services.

As for how much it cost - well one can say for certain that it cost less than 200,000 Euros for starters...

How do we know that? Well, because under EU law, the tender documents for any public sector service/supply contract with a value over 200,000 Euros has to be published in the Journal of the European Community and will appear on the EU's Tenders Electronic Daily website - and as this contract does not appear on TED it has to have been for less than 200,000 Euros.

All of which explains why this next parliamentary question, to which Staines refers...

Since Gordon's personal pollsters won't give Guido answers, maybe Gordon will answer Stewart Jackson's parliamentary questions?

  • To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether the decision to engage Opinion Leader Research to undertake polling for HM Treasury was subject to a competitive tendering process and will he make a statement.
  • To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer how much has been spent in each year since 2001 by HM Treasury on polling services provided by Opinion Leader Research and will he make a statement.

Got the following answer...

John Healey [ holding answer 1 March 2007]: The Treasury has not commissioned any opinion polling in the past three years. I refer to the answer I gave the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) on 4 December 2006, Official Report, column 196W.

In short, the research that OLR did for the Treasury was not an opinion poll - which Stewart Jackson could have found out from OLR's website for nothing and saved the taxpayer the cost of yet another irrelevant written question.

And if one checks the response to Mark Hoban's question on 4 December, one finds the actual costs of contracts awarded to OLR by the Treasury in the last three years given as follows...

John Healey: Over the last three financial years the Treasury has employed Opinion Leader Research Ltd. to conduct research on public attitudes towards public services and to inform decisions in the run up to the 2005 Budget (£19,021 in total); and to run workshops for the Financial Inclusion Taskforce (£133,237). The costs stated are excluding VAT.

Not much of a cover up is it - you can get the exact figures on what the Treasury actually paid OLR out of Hansard in a matter of 30 seconds simply by searching for 'Opinion Leader Research'.

A co-conspirator points out that they also had no identifiable paying client for their "What it means to be British" research in 2005. Shortly afterwards Gordon began loudly banging his Britishness drum. Opinion Leader Research has helped Gordon on "Britishness" issues before, their research was used extensively in “New Britain” a 1999 publication produced by the Smith Institute. The pamphlet was itself singled out and explicitly criticised by the Charity Commission as being party political in the first 2001 investigation into the Sith.

There is a slight problem with this passage, one which, if one scans the comments on this article, is noted by someone named Julian:

Hope you are aware that Opinion Leader Research is just another of Chime Communications which also just happens to be the holding company of that well-known politically impartial organisation ... Bell Pottinger.

Chime Communications is the owner of Opinion Leader Research and the CEO of Chime and Bell Pottinger is none other than Baron Timothy Bell, former MD of Saatchi and Saatchi and PR advisor to Margaret Thatcher... oops.

(Staines, naturally, fails update his original post to reflect this information, which completely destroys the main thrust of his innuendo, unless he's going to suggest that Tim Bell has gone over to the 'dark side' and joined 'The Sith'.)

Guido sees a pattern here; the Treasury hosts over a hundred of the Smith Institute's seminars - rent-free, simultaneously the Treasury pays the Smith Institute to hold seminars. The Treasury pays Deborah Mattinson's Opinion Leader Research generously, Deborah Mattinson sits on the Smith Institute's board and does "polling" that is helpful to Gordon - for free. She also writes hagiographical press articles about Gordon, based on her own polling research, whenever negative independent poll findings come out.

Not only is there no evidence for any of this, but the information that was already in the public domain at the point this was written entirely contradicts the picture that Staines is trying to paint - never let documentary facts get in the way of a good bit of tinfoil-hatted innuendo never mind that its Tim Bell's operation you're slating here, eh Paul?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the taxpayer has been paying, via the Treasury, for Gordon's polling and spin, all tightly coordinated via the Smith Institute to promote the Brownite political agenda. This is abuse of office.

Except, of course, that its not clear at all that that is what's happening here. What the taxpayer has actually been paying for from OLR is a matter of public record and not only does nothing in the public domain support any of Staines' innuendos, but much of it expressly contradicts his spurious claims.

And with that, we'll move on to his last post on OLR, which appeared today...

Sith Pollster Believed Under Professional Standards Investigation

As if Gordon's Sith allies didn't have enough problems with the Charity Commission investigation, it appears that the Market Research Standards Board is to investigate Opinion Leader Research, Gordon Brown's pollster. Guido called the Standards Board to get confirmation, but they said they could not comment on individual cases. When Guido asked them to confirm they weren't investigating OLR, they declined.

Oo-er - sounds serious doesn't it?

Except that when one looks at the kind of things that the 'Market Research Standards Board' tends to investigate one find that this includes:

Questionnaire wording - These complaints concern allegations of bias in the questionnaire. This includes the existence of ‘persuasive facts’ in the questionnaire and questions that lead respondents to a particular answer.

Reporting of results in media - This includes press release and other statements made by both researcher and their clients. Results must be adequately supported by the data on which they are based.

Member behaviour - These cases involve the individual misconduct of an MRS member. Typically, it includes complaints made by one member against another, allegations of dishonesty, and interviewer behaviour when interviewer is a member.

Respondent feeling misled - Respondent can feel misled by being induced to participate in research with information that is inaccurate or untrue, for example, the length of time an interview will take or the purpose of the research. This category also covers complaints regarding potentially misleading methodology.

Interviewer behaviour : non member - Many complaints concern interviewers’ interaction with members of the public, for example, allegations of tactlessness, pushiness, or over familiarity. The MRS can investigate these complaints where the interviewer is supervised or is the responsibility of an MRS member or where the interviewer works for an MRS Company Partner organisation.

So, if there is a complaint against OLR it could be about any one of a number things and completely and utterly unrelated to any of the innuendos being spread by Staines or, alternatively, this rumoured complaint could be based on nothing more than the readily debunked and insubstantial innuendos that Staines published back in February.

Moreover, not only does the MRSB - which is only an internal watchdog of a trade association, after all - not confirm whether a complaint has been made against a member but it also does not publish any detailed information on any disciplinary matters even after they have been dealt with, the upshot of which is that there is no way of knowing if there is a complaint against OLR, where the complaint originated, what the substance of the complaint is or (eventually) the outcome of any investigation and or disciplinary proceedings, should any result. This is absolutely perfect terrain for an inveterate rumour monger and/or his camp followers as they can spread innuendo to their hearts content, safe in the knowledge that no one is likely to come out and directly contradict them or put the record straight, because such matters are dealt with entirely internally and the most that the Market Research Society publishes is general statistics on the number and type of complaints they receive.

In all respects this is even more fertile ground for running innuendo-based smears than usual as, unlike the Charity Commission, the MRSB does not publish its findings and there is, therefore, no chance of Staines' little innuendos being publicly (and officially) debunked.

At this point, given Staines' predilection for innuendo and conspiracy theories, lets throw a little innuendo of our own into the pot for a moment and see if what emerges sounds plausible.

Over the last few months, the Smith Institute and some of the those associated with it have been under a concerted attack from both Staines and the Tory Party, who see it as means of miring Gordon Brown down in as yet unsubstantiated allegations of low-level sleaze. And throughout this period the attacks have all followed roughly the same basic pattern.

It starts out with a stream of innuendos and very loose claims of unspecified 'misconduct', none of which can actually be substantiated and in which Staines typically plays a part in spreading the gossip. This is left to brew for a little while after which there is some sort of formal complaint to regulatory body, which is generally the point at which the rumours and innuendos get a bit of mainstream press coverage - largely because once the formal complaint goes in they can more or less get away with repeating the rumours and innuendos without much of a risk of catching a libel action in reply.

This was the pattern with the complaint to the Charity Commission, with the Tories recent speculative efforts to get the Electoral Commission to go a fishing expedition into the Smith Institutes finances and now the same pattern seems to be emerging around another organisation with links to the Smith Institute - Opinion Leader Research.

What all these complaints have in common, apart from the involvement of Staines (and the Tory Party) in spreading the innuendos as widely as possible and routinely purporting to be 'in the know' about them is:

a) They're all indirect attacks on Gordon Brown's integrity, routed via a relatively soft target, i.e. The Smith Institute,

b) None of them have been substantiated (as yet) in the slightest, and

c) They all related to activities in which the legal/regulatory framework that its alleged that the Smith Institute (and now OLR) have somehow breached is unfamilar to the public and in most respects rather arcane and technical.

For example - so far as one can tell, the Bob Shrum seminars on which the complaint the Charity Commission is based, were actually arranged through a subsidiary trading company owned by the Smith Institute - SI Event's Limited. Now, in charity law, registered charities are permitted to own and operate trading subsidiaries - and many do - and those subsidiaries are not subject to the same restrictions on activities that apply to the charities themselves, provided that a clear dividing line is maintained between the work of the charity and that of its trading arm. That's the legal position but it one that not well understood by the public - in fact most of the public are unlikely to even realise that such a thing is either possible or legal.

So while the law is clear, the public understanding of the law is, at best, vague, which creates just the right environment for the spreading of rumours and innuendo of a kind that relies heavily on the public's lack of detailed understanding of the nuances and subtleties of charity law.

The same can be said of this Times report on the Tories recent complaint to the Electoral Commission, which includes the following entirely misleading statement:

Under electoral laws, any organisation that develops policy for political parties or helps promote politicians must declare all donations of more than £5,000.

This is only true of an organisation operating in electoral law as a registrable third party, which means an organisation that actively campaigns for or produces electional materials supporting a particular party or block of candidates or one that directly sponsors research that aims to promote a particular policy for or to a political party for political reasons - rules that cover the sponsorship of conferences and publications carried out to that end as well as the research itself.

However, such activities must also be expressly political and tied directly to a specific party (or parties) or a specific policy associated with a particular party - the rules are not generic or all encompassing and it's simply not true that any organisation the develops policy for political parties must declare their donations - which is what the Times suggests. If it were then pretty much every political think-tank from the Adam Smith Institute and Centre for Policy Studies on the right to the IPPR on the left would have to register with the Electoral Commission and identify all their donors - which would make for interesting reading, certainly, but is hardly what any of main political parties would want.

At this stage, the only thing that gives any of these 'complaints' any credence at all is the fact that a regulatory body is or may be conducting an investigation into the allegations about which Staines and others have been spreading rumour and innuendo. But any such credence is necessarily subject to rather a sizeable 'but'...

If you take the time to look at the regulations that govern any of regulatory bodies that have recently received Smith Institute-related complaints and read up on their own rules and codes of practice, then what becomes immediately apparent is that each of them is compelled by their own regulations to investigate complaints forwarded to them about organisations over which they have regulatory jurisdiction, irrespective of whether or not there is actually any substantive evidence of wrongdoing. All that is necessary to trigger the complaints procedure and cause an investigation to be conducted is a properly-formed allegation of misconduct, i.e. a complaint of a breach of regulations of a kind that is within the purview of the regulator to investigate. Satisfy that condition and the regulator is compelled to conduct at least an exploratory investigation to ascertain whether a full investigation is merited, even if that investigation turns up nothing of substance and proves only that the complaint itself in unfounded and lacks any factual basis.

It's death by a thousand cuts, isn't it - just keep throwing the mud and some of it will stick, at least until the investigation is concluded and a ruling is made, which could take months. In fact in the case of the Charity Commission it will take months, because their investigations invariably do.

Moreover, once the investigation is underway, there is very little that the organisation against which the complaint has been lodged can do, publicly, to refute allegations without being perceived to be trying to interfere with the course of the investigation - the Smith Institute, for the time being, simply cannot fight back because its hands are tied by the Charity Commission's investigation - another fine point of Charity law that is not widely understood by the public is that Charity Commission investigations and ruling are, in law, of a judicial character, which means that the general rules of sub-judice apply. All the Smith Institute can do for the time being make flat denials and take a beating in the press until the conclusion of the investigation, at which point it may be able to fire back - but by then the damage may well have gone too far to be retrieved by publicly confronting its accusers.

Now you could write that off as simply a bit of spin on my own part - an effort to counter one set of conspiracy theories by clouding the waters with another conspiracy theory of my own, and its true that I have no more evidence for any of this last series of speculations that Staines has of corruption in any dealing between OLR and the Treasury.

The thing is, though, if there really were any substance to Staines' rumours and innuendos about OLR and awarding of public sector contracts then that would amount to criminal corruption of a kind that would result in a Police investigation were a complaint made to them - in fact a Police investigation into such allegations would be far more damaging to Brown, the Smith Institute and OLR than Staines' current run of innuendo or any number of complaints to 'soft' regulators and trade associations - so why not make the complaint and have done with it?

Well, for two very obvious reasons:

1. Staines has no actual concrete evidence to support any his rumours and innuendos whatsoever, and

2. The little matter of the criminal offence of wasting police time.

If Staines was really in possession of evidence to show that OLR had been corruptly awarded government contracts or even confident that a police investigation - or even one by the National Audit Office or Public Accounts Committee - would turn up any such evidence, then he, or someone of similar mind and intent, would make the complaint and let the police investigate the matter. With the possibility of causing that kind of damage, why confine yourself to fifth rate innuendos on your website...

...unless all you're doing is blowing smoke.

Guido has previously noted the cosy closeness of the relationship between OLR, HM Treasury, the Smith Institute, Deborah Mattinson and Gordon Brown. Whenever more objective polls are gloomy for Gordon, OLR can be relied on to produce "Gordon more popular than sliced bread" stories.

And Staines can be relied upon to spread rumour and innuendo, even when 10 minutes research turns up ample evidence that his allusions are without substance.

So perhaps the real question here is not so much who OLR are cosy with. but just exactly who Paul Staines is cosy with at the moment... any guesses?

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