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In December last year the anti-hunting charity the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) commissioned its seasonal poll from Ipsos MORI. The results were predictable to those of us who follow such 'research' and LACS subsequently produced its traditional Boxing Day press release claiming '80% of the British public are in favour of keeping the ban on fox hunting'. Those numbers looked a little odd beside the reports of hundreds of thousands of people supporting their local hunts, but surely showed that everyone else must hate those nasty foxhunters.
In January however, another polling company, YouGov, decided to ask a question about hunting in anticipation of the tenth anniversary of the Hunting Act on 18th February. That poll reported that 51% of people "support the ban on fox hunting with hounds". The research was not commissioned by anyone, but according to YouGov was asked "purely for the interest of our (website) readers".
We hear a lot about 'rogue' polls and statistical range these days, but a 29% polling difference on the same issue a month apart is some anomaly. How on earth can this have happened?
The story goes back into the 1990's and the increasing reliance of the anti-hunting movement on public opinion polling to make the case for a ban on hunting. LACS, with its partners IFAW and the RSPCA, found a willing helper in the form of Robert Worcester, founder and Chairman of the dominant market research company MORI. Worcester was happy to appear at LACS meetings, and LACS press releases invited interested parties to contact him directly about polling commissioned for anti-hunting groups. The message was simple: an overwhelming majority of the public supported a ban on hunting, and as the other arguments for prohibition fell away public opinion became more and more important to its advocates.
From the start MORI polling often showed significantly more support for a ban on hunting than research carried out by other companies and as a polling war developed around impending legislation that difference became potentially critical. When the Government introduced an 'Options Bill' including a 'middle way' proposal to license hunting, polls commissioned by the Countryside Alliance started to show well under half the population supporting a total ban on hunting. The Advertising Standards Authority were even dragged in and told us that on the basis of one poll we ran we could say that 59% of people did not want hunting banned, but not that 59% of people had said 'keep hunting'.
By 2003, however, MORI research was claiming that "69% of the public think fox hunting should not be legal". Eventually the absurd debate concluded with the passing of the Hunting Act, but the polling war was not over. Critically, in 2005, a few days before the Hunting Act came into force, MORI ran a poll for someone other than LACS. The research, for the BBC programme Countryfile, concluded that there was no overall majority of support for the ban with just 47% of people saying that they 'personally supported a ban on hunting with dogs'. MORI polling for LACS, however, continued to show ever greater support for a ban which by October 2009 had reached 75%.
At this point a cross party group of parliamentarians stepped in to raise the anomaly with the industry regulator, the Market Research Society (MRS), and in particular to challenge the extremely dubious preamble and question being used by MORI (now Ipsos MORI) when it polled for LACS, which they argued clearly breached the MRS Code of Conduct.
To the MPs and peers the reason that the polling for the BBC and the polling for LACS varied so widely was obvious. The Ipsos MORI poll for BBC Countryfile which found 47% of people supported a ban on hunting asked:
Now a question about hunting with dogs (that is, fox hunting, deer hunting, hare coursing, hare hunting and mink hunting)…As you may know, a ban on hunting with dogs is due to come into force in England and Wales, subject to a legal challenge.
To what extent do you personally support or oppose a ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales?
Whereas the MORI poll for LACS which found that 75% of people supported a ban on fox hunting asked:
Now a question about sports where animals are set on other animals to fight or kill them. These activities are currently illegal in the United Kingdom:
Dog Fighting, Badger Baiting, Fox Hunting, Deer Hunting, Hare Hunting & Coursing
For each one I read out, please tell me whether you think it should or should not be made legal again.
The parliamentarians argued that the description of hunting in this poll, and the inclusion of fighting and baiting activities unrelated to hunting were designed to prejudice the respondents' attitude towards hunting and to influence the subsequent answers. They further pointed out that the effect of the preamble and question were evidenced by the earlier MORI poll for the BBC which had not included such pejorative content and reported a very different response.
The MRS Standards Board initially rejected the complaint, which frankly was no surprise given that the founding Chairman and current 'ambassador' of the MRS is the architect of the very polling strategy being complained of. However, when the parliamentarians took their case to the MRS's 'Reviewer of Complaints', an independent lawyer, something extraordinary happened. The Reviewer savaged the initial response saying:
"I have considered carefully the Minutes and papers from the Investigations Committee and the Standards Board and the reasons given for the decision in respect of the involvement of alleged unrelated activities. In the form set out the line of reasoning is far from clear. No attempt seems to have been made to address the substance of the Complaint, namely that the nature of the activities of badger baiting and dog fighting were inherently different to hunting."
"The comparison of the 2003, 2005 and 2009 polls does seem to me to be a valid issue. The substance of what was being addressed was substantially the same and what was at variance was the format"
The MRS was unabashed, however, and rejected its own Reviewer's criticisms out of hand without any serious attempt to address them, or the substance of the original complaint.
The MRS's failure to act did not just effect that 2009 poll and what had come before. It also signalled a free-for-all in which LACS and Ipsos MORI have become ever more brazen. The current claims for support for the ban on hunting have grown ever higher, to 80%, but when the 'research' is making direct comparisons between hunting and dog fighting to 15 year olds and recording their opinion, as the December 2014 Ipsos MORI poll did, that is not really surprising.
Then in January YouGov asked a straight question 'Do you support or oppose the ban on fox hunting with hounds?' and got a straight answer, which has once again laid bare the strange results of polls commissioned by LACS with Ipsos MORI. However, with a cowering regulator and seemingly no concern from either the charity or the research company about their reputations it would seem nothing is likely to change.
You may think this does not matter: that it is only hunting, or that you don't like fox hunters, but I would suggest that this story sets a very dangerous precedent. With opinion polls exerting increasing influence on politicians over almost every issue the ability to trust the numbers presented by campaigners and politicians is critical. You might not care about hunting, but can you trust polling on issues that do matter to you?