Market Research Society rules it is ethical to poll about false personal allegations

The Market Research Standards Board (MRSB) has cleared YouGov of all the complaints made about its polling of 16-19 April during the general election – but in so doing has raised a big question about what now counts as ‘ethical’ polling. The MRSB’s ruling gives the green light to pollsters asking questions on behalf of their clients which contain false allegations about a person, even if those allegations have not previously been made in public.

The Market Research Society Code of Conduct (to which YouGov subscribes, along with other British political pollsters), states that “researchers shall be … honest” and “researchers shall protect the reputation and integrity of the profession”. However, when clearing YouGov of all complaints from other people on a wide range of matters, the MRSB also cleared it of a complaint I had lodged over the use of a polling question which falsely stated that Nick Clegg has taken money from “a criminal on the run”. This is untrue (though the party under a previous leader, Charles Kennedy, did take money from someone who subsequently was convicted of fraud and went on the run).

As a general principle, the MRSB ruled that it was ethical to ask a question about false allegations which had been publicly aired prior to the poll in order to see what the impact of those allegations was on public opinion. Many people are likely to see such actions as contrary to protecting “the reputation and integrity of the profession”, but such polling can at least be defended on the grounds that it is researching what the impact is of something already in the public domain.

However, not only did the MRSB not attempt to draw any limits around the circumstances in which such polling of false allegations is acceptable (e.g., by saying that only those affected by those allegations can poll to see their impact but not opponents whose interest may be to try to exploit the false claims), the MRSB also in practice further decided that the false allegations need not previously have been made in public at all.

That is because the MRSB ruled YouGov’s polling acceptable on the basis that, “All the statements has [sic] appeared in the media prior to the project. (The “criminal on the run” claim had been made by Mr Cameron during the first leaders’ debate on 15 April 2010)”.

Yet the transcript of the first debate shows that David Cameron’s statement in the first debate was in fact about the Liberal Democrats taking money from a criminal – a reference to the donation the party received from Michael Brown. That donation was in fact received when Charles Kennedy was party leader and at a time when Nick Clegg was not only not party leader but also not in any other post, such as treasurer or chief fundraiser, which could count as having ‘received’ the money.

On this discrepancy being queried, the Market Research Society has stuck to its ruling, insisting that the failure of the debate transcript to reflect the wording of the polling question is no reason to rethink its ruling. In other words, it is ethical in its eyes to take a past fact about a political party, rewrite it into a false statement about the party’s current leader, and then put that statement in a public opinion poll – and it is still ethical to do so even if no evidence is presented of the rewritten false claim having been made in public by anyone.

The MRS may view that as ethical, and YouGov were cleared of all complaints, but that is the sort of verdict which should cause leading figures in the industry to scramble to rewrite their rules.

UPDATE: Several years on, I returned to this topic in The Week in Polls.

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