Today
Fri 17 September 2021

As Andrew Neil officially quits the right-wing television channel, Brian Cathcart reveals the spin on a recent opinion poll

Fascinating new evidence has emerged showing just how rattled the people at GB News are by the advertising boycott organised by Stop Funding Hate, and just how desperate they are to undermine it. 

They commissioned a poll about the boycott – not from a recognised pollster but from their own strategy advisors – and then planted the findings in friendly newspapers which did their best to present something helpful. 

No surprises there, perhaps, but now the poll data have been released and it reveals GB News stacking the cards shamelessly in its own favour, with a mysteriously weighted pool of respondents subjected to a battery of manipulative questions. And remarkably, even then many of the findings not mentioned in the press were very bad news for the failing television channel.    

It was in late August that the Telegraph and the Express told their readers about an opinion poll which, they claimed, showed that the boycott actually made people more likely to tune in to the channel and also that the BBC was seen as more biased than GB News.

Attentive readers at the time may have noticed that the poll was commissioned by GB News itself (this was revealed in the sixth paragraph of the Telegraph report and the twelfth of the Express article) and also that the poll did not come from YouGov or IPSOS-Mori or some other familiar polling brand but from a company called C|T Group.

C|T Group – run by right-wing Australian strategist Lynton Crosby – is the political consultancy hired by GB News to dig it out of its hole. Though not a well-known pollster, it boasts of its research prowess on its website, adding ominously: “Our opinion research is outcome-focused, and our researchers instinctively know what is a leverageable finding and what is not.”

How trustworthy is such a poll likely to be? Well, C|T Group is apparently not a member of the British Polling Council, and so lacks a basic kite-mark of quality. In due course, however, the company released some of the hard data behind its polling exercise.

Byline Times showed the figures to a veteran and respected British pollster (who asked not to be named). He said: “This is a poll designed to support a campaign, not to discover the true state of public opinion.”

You don’t need to be an expert to see what he means. 


Problems with the Polling

For a start, of the 1,000 people questioned as part of the poll in late June, a surprising 26% said that they watched GB News at least once a week. Official industry figures suggest that in June – the channel’s initial (and most successful) month – about 3.8 million people tuned in. That is less than 6% of the population. 

The sample thus contains many more GB News viewers than official figures would lead you to expect. Could it be that, when people were asked if they watched GB News, they didn’t always realise it was a channel, as opposed to a more general term for British TV news reporting? 

And what was the first question respondents were asked? This: ‘How important do you believe it is to protect freedom of speech in the UK?’ 

This is a crude, ‘outcome-focused’ device highly likely to lead interviewees in a desired direction rather than revealing their genuine views. Imagine the effect on later responses if, instead, the opening question had been: ‘How important do you believe it is that television news is accurate and balanced?’ Or: ‘Do you support racism and hate speech on television?’ 

As for the findings that resulted from this loaded questioning, they are – predictably – rather different from the impression given to readers of the Express and the Telegraph

To start with, given that this was a poll about an advertising boycott of GB News organised by the Stop Funding Hate campaign group, the most glaring finding is in the answers to question 11: ‘To what extent do you support or oppose the advertising boycott of GB News?’ Obviously, this could only be put to those respondents who were aware of the boycott, and the grid tells us what they thought: ‘Total support: 41%. Total oppose: 40%.’ 

So, even in a poll apparently conducted with a view to pleasing GB News, more respondents backed Stop Funding Hate than opposed it.   

What about the Telegraph’s headline claim: ‘BBC Is More Biased than GB News, Poll Finds’? This relied on the finding that 42% of respondents believed that the BBC was biased, compared to 27% who said the same of GB News.

The problem with that is that even more people – 46% – said that the BBC was not biased; an oddity that arose because, unsurprisingly, GB News attracted far more ‘don’t knows’. The same series of questions also suggest, incidentally, that slightly more people – 25% – thought that GB News was extreme than thought the same of the BBC, 22%. 

In reality, these figures tell us very little about GB News because so many of those asked for their opinions had probably never or hardly ever watched it.  

Regardless, the Express headline was ‘GB News Poll Figures: Poll Finds Viewers MORE Likely to Watch After Advertising Boycott’. It reported that 29% said that they were more likely to watch the channel because of the boycott, compared to 14% who said that they were less likely to.

It is revealing to see the sequence of questions put to respondents leading up to that one. They were:

‘Do you agree or disagree with the statement that consumer goods companies should not take public political stances?’

‘Do you support or oppose social media users making online campaigns against businesses?’

‘What would be your view of a company that cancelled their adverts solely under politically-motivated social media pressure?’

These questions appear to be crudely designed to push respondents in a chosen direction. Nowhere, for example, did they make reference to the reasons behind the Stop Funding Hate campaign – to resist racism, transphobia and other bigotry. Nor was it explained to respondents that the campaign relies exclusively on individual consumers using their power to influence advertisers. 

But remarkably, as we have seen, even after the distorting barrage of questions more people said that they supported the boycott than opposed it.

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And the punchline question was put to all respondents, whether they had previously been aware of the boycott or not: ‘Knowing that there has been an advertisers’ boycott of GB News, has that made you more or less likely to watch the channel?’

Again, it is striking how resilient the respondents proved. More than half – 53% – declared that it would make no difference to them, and a further 5% offered no view either way. Of those that remained, 29% said that they were more likely to watch, and 14% said that they were less likely to do so.

The data, meanwhile, includes a number of eye-catching details that somehow escaped the notice of the Express and Telegraph. Among people under 45, for example – an important demographic for advertisers – clear majorities said that the boycott made them less likely to watch GB News.  

It is hard to imagine a well-known polling organisation engaging in an exercise so crude but, on the other hand, it is easy to see this as an exercise in ‘outcome-focused’ research. GB News appeared to get the ‘leverageable findings’ it paid for and the result was a couple of favourable headlines in national newspapers that care as little as they do about truth and accuracy.

C|T Group was contacted for comment but did not respond.

Brian Cathcart is Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London and the author of ‘The Case of Stephen Lawrence’ (1999)

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