Polls, Politics and
Gower Publishing Company
Limited, 200 pages, $35.50
Reviewed bv Dick
George Orwell really should be reviewing this book, because it confirms
some of his forecasts for this ominous year, right down to instant
referenda via direct-access television. He'd probably see the polling
process as yet another erosion of democracy.
But is it? Modern technology permits —
or soon will permit
— fast communication between the governing and the governed.
And can one reasonably argue that better communication between the
voters and the elected is not desired?
John Clemens, himself a pollster, sensibly puts
forward both arguments,
although he does, to be sure, lean toward his own field. Indeed, he
sees an "extremely exciting" future for public opinion polling and goes
so far as to call it a growth industry for this decade.
That will warm the hearts of the Martin Goldfarbs
and Allan Greggs of
the world, pollsters who attempt to sample the thoughts of Liberals and
Progressive Conservatives and other odds and sods for their various
clients. But those who report on polls —journalists of all
media — should be wary of what the results ostensibly
Handbook of Reporting Methods, Maxwell McCombs of
University and Cleveland Wilhoit of Indiana University wrote:
"Reporters should scrutinize poll results with the same tenacity they
would a report from a government official. . . . The basic objective is
to determine the credibility and validity of poll results before they
are printed or aired."
In other words, the journalistic skills and
techniques used in any
other story need to be applied with polls. Regrettably, too often we
haven't done that, preferring to confer on polls the same degree of
sanctity we give to declarations of war. We treat polls as news when we
shouldn't, unless we are, indeed, in the business of fabrication.
With increasing frequency, newspapers themselves
independent firms to conduct polls during election campaigns, unless
prohibited by law. Look for a rash of those this year, in connection
both the Liberal leadership convention and the forthcoming federal
Yet, among some journalists, this practice raises
Some wonder, rightly, about the wisdom of what they call contrived or
manufactured news. And they wonder whether the public is served well by
exposure to such point-in-time testing of moods.
Clemens advances that kind of questioning in his
book, which he
describes as neither a textbook on how to conduct an opinion poll nor a
technical assessment of the quality of polls. Rather, he sets out to
show what can be learned from polls, and he highlights their strengths
He claims he wants to open a debate on the values
and dangers of public
opinion polls, and their influence. But he doesn't acknowledge that
this debate started some time ago, most notably in Philip Meyer's
The question which Clemens confronts but doesn't
is. Is a government elected to lead and initiate, or to follow public
opinion? Is democracy meant to be government by the people, or
Those of us of an activist or reformist bent will
argue that government must do the likely impossible task of
both following and leading public opinion. It must be responsive to
voters' concerns, but it also must track new ground.
Politics being the art of the possible, it should
not surprise us that
provincial and federal governments rely heavily on polls to formulate
public policy. The retention of power has become all-important to most
governments in this country, and pollsters have become their link to
Clemens explains in detail that the two most
important components of a
poll are the questions and the sample. How the question is presented,
and to which group of the population, often will determine the answer.
But there is a third component which he also
handles, and that is the
interpreter of the results. And the interpretation may be at least as
important as the other factors, for it is here that ethics,
responsibility, and intelligence count so much — especially
when disseminated through the press.
Clemens concedes that populism can be a disruptive
force. "It can
lead." he says, "to policies that attempt to satisfy public opinion in
the short term, and that do not take a long-term view. It is likely to
increase the expediency of government at the expense of effective
planning for the country as a whole."
He also says it will be a long time before we learn if the benefits of
knowing what the public wants will outweigh the disadvantages of
government being constantly put on the rack of public opinion.
Is polling, then, an erosion of the democratic
process, or is it an
extension, or a new direction, of that process? Can it improve the
quality of community life, making society a better place? Perhaps, as
Clemens says, the greater responsiveness of government to public
demands is of itself good.
Since Clemens' book deals almost exclusively with
British affairs, let
a fellow national have the final word on polls. Former prime minister
Harold Wilson said:
"Accord to the polls interest, but not idolatry. . . . Regard them as
an honest attempt to record the state of public opinion, at one moment
in time, on one issue of political importance: or, less reliably, as an
assessment not of opinion but of that indefinable phenomenon, the
public mood on the broad political situation — a factor in,
not a determinant of, policy. . . .
"Treat them, then, with respect, as you would give
to any honest and expert professional assessment of facts
that you have to take into account. And then recognize that you were
elected, as legislator, as an executive, to exercise a judgment
— not on what is expedient, or electorally rewarding, but a
judgment on what is right."
MacDonald is a member of the journalism faculty at Toronto's
Humber College. 'Hie founding editor of Content magazine, his most
recent book is Borden
Spears: Reporter, Editor, Critic, co-published by
Fitzhenry & Whiteside and the School of Journalism, University
of Western Ontario.
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