Respected Academic derides Better Together poll as written for ‘gullible or biased media’

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  By Owen O’Donnell
 
One of Scotland’s most respected academics has criticised a recent survey commissioned on behalf of the pro-Union campaign Better Together, describing one of the questions asked as “making little sense” and another of being “difficult to take seriously”.
 
James Mitchell, a revered Professor of Public Policy, Politics and International Relations at Edinburgh University, was scathing of a recent No campaign opinion poll and described it as “unbalanced” and designed to create a headline in what he termed a “gullible or biased media”.

Writing for online site Wings Over Scotland, Mr Mitchell commented: “Campaign organisations/parties have long used surveys but in the past this was to understand what the public thought.

“But this is a classic example – and, of course, both sides do this – of a survey designed less to find out what the public think than to try and get a gullible or biased media to provide a headline.”

The survey led to headlines across most of the Scottish media which claimed Scots wanted the SNP to introduce now, a Childcare policy Alex Salmond’s party has claimed can only be introduced with independence.  Other headlines claimed the public believed the Scottish Government were spending too much money on their independence white paper.

In his assessment of the poll, the academic described questions put forward as “convoluted” and “clearly partisan” deriding the use of opening statements which were used in questions such as one on Childcare which was prefixed with:

“When Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government launched their White Paper on independence one of the main reasons they offered for voting to become independent from the United Kingdom was that childcare could be improved. However, Alex Salmond is already responsible for provision of childcare which is devolved to the Scottish Parliament.”

Mr Mitchell said that: “The question is clearly partisan and attempting to make a point rather than seriously test opinion. For me the really important question when asking about any public policy – especially something likely to be popular – would to pose meaningful choices. There need to be serious options, but this question is designed to get one response and conflates different issues.”

He also mused on the somewhat confusing wording of the question which appeared to be aimed at people still undecided on how to vote in the referendum, with three possible responses beginning with: “If people aren’t completely sure on the issue of Scottish independence…”

Mitchell said: “the question is difficult to take seriously. What does ‘completely sure’ mean? Is anything in politics completely sure?”

The only praise he gave the opinion poll was for its opening question on “preferred constitutional status” which he described as being “the only question I find remotely interesting here – yet still flawed.”

The flaws, according to the academic included a lack of additional responses, namely the options of ‘no devolution’ and ‘a Scottish republic’ which he noted were both absent.

Professor Mitchell also commented on the question which asked participants if they backed independence, the status quo or more powers, and added: “What I find most intriguing is that “Better Together” would wish to use his question – it highlights that the key battleground in the referendum lies in the element that supports ‘more powers’.

“It does, of course, lend credence to the argument that those who support this position have a case for arguing that they have been disenfranchised, and also provokes the obvious questions of what does it mean, what does it amount to and how will it be delivered?”

Professor Mitchell was providing analysis after being invited by the online site Wings over Scotland, which itself commissioned an opinion poll on several issues relating to Scottish independence and current affairs.

Introducing Professor Mitchell’s analysis, Wings Over Scotland administrator, Stuart Campbell wrote: “When we commissioned our second Panelbase poll, we asked Edinburgh University’s highly respected Professor of Public Policy, Politics and International Relations, James Mitchell, to give our questions the once-over beforehand to ensure they weren’t unfair or leading.  The resulting poll’s neutrality was widely praised.

“We thought it might therefore be interesting to get his expert professional opinion on the recent “Better Together” poll by YouGov, and he very kindly obliged.”