A tighter oversight of opinion polling is called for today by the Lords Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media, in the wake of polling failures in the 2015 general election, the EU referendum in 2016 and the 2017 general election.
The role of the British Polling Council would be widened far beyond its present emphasis on transparency. In future it would work with the Electoral Commission, the Market Research Society and media regulators such as IPSO and IMPRESS to ensure that the best methodologies are used, that sources of poll funding are declared, that polls are better reported and that polling performance is openly reviewed after each general election.
The recommendations come in the Committee’s report, The politics of polling. The report also looks at the impact of digital media on politics, where recommendations include using the Government’s Digital Charter to tackle the challenges posed by digital media for democracy.
The Committee say that the remit of the British Polling Council (BPC), the industry’s self-regulatory body, should be expanded to take on a more substantial oversight function. It would issue guidance on best practice for polling methodologies, require polling companies to publish details of all sources of funding for polling and provide training and guidance for journalists on how to accurately report on polls. The report also says that the BPC and the Market Research Society (MRS) should be proactive in reporting inaccurate media coverage of polls to the offending publication’s relevant regulator. Poll performance would be formally and publicly reviewed after each general election.
The report proposes a role for the Electoral Commission in regulating polls during elections. It says that there should be a requirement that any voting intention polls published during the regulated election period should be declared to the Electoral Commission and the details of all funding for those polls published. This is important as coverage of polls can influence the narrative of election campaigns and may affect voter behaviour.
On digital media the Committee found that the use of social media to adversely influence the political debate was ‘deeply concerning’. The Committee says it is ‘crucial’ that confidence in our elections is maintained and endorses the Electoral Commission’s call for a requirement that online campaign material must include an imprint stating who published it, putting it on an equal footing with printed material.
The Committee highlights the many diverse implications which digital media has for politics and draws attention to its potential impact on democracy. The Committee invited the Lords Liaison Committee to set up another Committee to examine specifically digital media and democracy, and hopes that this will feature in a future Lords Committee programme.
The Committee’s report also calls on the Government to urgently conduct further research into the impact of digital media on politics in the UK, with the Digital Charter presenting an ideal opportunity to better understand and tackle the threat. The report also calls on the Department for Education to ensure that children and adults are educated in literacy skills to allow them to identify misleading online information.
Commenting Lord Lipsey, Chairman of the Committee, said:
“The polling industry needs to get its house in order. Otherwise the case for banning polling in the run-up to elections – one we for now reject – will become stronger. We heard compelling evidence that polls influence the narrative around elections and thus go to the root of our democratic debate. This makes it vital they are conducted properly and held to the highest standards of accuracy.
“We want the British Polling Council to take a more proactive role in how it regulates polling and influences the reporting of polls. Too often minor changes in the main parties’ standing, often within the margin of error, are reported by a breathless media as indicating a real change in the real world, and even as indicating which party might end up forming the Government. The BPC needs to step up to the plate. It should do more and raise concerns with IPSO, IMPRESS or Ofcom where there is significant misreporting of poll results.
“Voters have a right to know who paid for polls. The Electoral Commission should have a role in monitoring all voting intention polls published during an election campaign, and publishing their funding sources.
“On the impact of digital media on politics, while much of our evidence came before the current row with Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, it was clear to us that some activity on digital media poses a significant risk to politics and democracy in the UK. More needs to be done to better understand that threat and educate the population to spot ‘fake news’ and baseless propaganda online.
“One concrete step that the Government can take now is to require all online campaign communications to carry an imprint to say who published it, as is the case for the printed material, and give the Electoral Commission the power to police and enforce that rule.
“Taken together, a lack of transparency and sometimes inaccurate polls, and the murky world of online political communications, pose an insidious threat to our political system. While we may be one of the oldest democracies in the world we must face up to these very contemporary dangers. Government, parliament and the polling industry must act now, before the damage goes deeper.”