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Polling the Public
Polls, Politics and Populism
John Clemens,
Gower Publishing Company Limited, 200 pages, $35.50

Reviewed bv Dick MacDonald


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 say.

In A Handbook of Reporting Methods, Maxwell McCombs of Syracuse 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 are commissioning independent firms to conduct polls during election campaigns, unless prohibited by law. Look for a rash of those this year, in connection with both the Liberal leadership convention and the forthcoming federal election.

Yet, among some journalists, this practice raises ethical questions. 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 and weaknesses.

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 Precision Journalisms in 1973.

The question which Clemens confronts but doesn't satisfactorily answer is. Is a government elected to lead and initiate, or to follow public opinion? Is democracy meant to be government by the people, or government for the people?

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 the electorate.

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."

Dick 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.

Published in Sources, Summer 1984

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