‘Satan’s Little Helpers’ (8) The Council and ‘Bread and Butter’

Andrew Cooper, one of the main Directors of Populus, is part of the management committee of the British Polling Council (BPC). The Founder members of the BPC were Comres, ICM, Ipsos MORI, NOP, ORB, TNS/System 3 and YouGov.[1]

The BPC was launched in 2004, other members of the Management Committee include its President, Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde and Nick Moon the Managing Director of GfK. Members and Company representatives include YouGov’s Peter Kellner, David Cowling of the BBC and David Butler of Nuffield College Oxford — who once described psephology as a ‘practical joke’ on a 1964 BBC election programme.

As can be imagined from such an august sounding body its membership are drawn from a representative sample of the profession.[2] But what is the ‘profession’ if we look at it as part of the cycle we have noted: when does polling become lobbying or reporting on it become part of political propaganda and public diplomacy?  We are left to take the protagonist’s word for it that some sort of impartiality prevails in every aspect of their work, because just like MP’s and Bankers they are self-regulated.  But there is a basic problem with this — trust.

As we have already noted, Populus’ and the BPC’s Andrew Cooper was described by the Financial Times as part of David Cameron’s ‘government in waiting’[3] and it also describes his journey from the London School of Economics, to the Social Market Foundation think-tank, to work for the Tories (as head of polling) and then director of strategy during William Hague’s leadership, noting that he left in 1999 to form Populus, an organization that amalgamates these roles.  It also asserts that his influence on Conservative policy formation concerns assessing the “mood of the country and how different messages might play with core electoral groups.”[4] Cooper is quoted as describing this activity as similar to his student days:

Do you remember what Danny [Finkelstein] and I used to do – having funny political ideas, trying to implement them, and joking about politics? Well, we’re still doing that, only now someone’s paying us.[5]

Indeed, but it is highly problematic to separate out who is in what position in the lobbying world for the purposes of analyzing its components.  Some lobbyists have stood for parliament: Nick Clegg being a prime example.[6] As we have seen, one of the problems in the MSPs record of their interests is the grey area of who the client is for the survey/lobby: and at times the MSPs seem vague and disingenuous in their reporting: possibly at times for good reason, but there seems no call to rectify this.

But the Scottish Parliament’s own reports acknowledged that, for example, the tobacco industry tried several ‘no-holds-barred’ efforts to recruit scientists in developed countries around the world who would criticise the science on second-hand smoke, cast doubt on whether it harms people and “prolong the controversy.”  This was coupled by Philip Morris’s intention to create a foundation that would “become THE scientific authority on a wide range of human concerns, thus putting itself above WHO, FAO and other organisations who restrict themselves to narrower fields.”[7] Philip Morris did this (and much else) using the lobbying company APCO Worldwide.  So the point is: if PR companies will go to the lengths of fabricating organisations which pervert our understanding, why should we even take an organization like the BPC seriously, why are they left to their own devices?

The BPC says it is an association of polling organisations that publish polls. Its objectives are:

…to ensure standards of disclosure designed to provide consumers of survey results that enter the public domain have an adequate basis for judging the reliability and validity of the results. Through full disclosure the Council aims to encourage the highest professional standards in public opinion polling and to advance the understanding, among politicians, the media and general public, of how polls are conducted and how to interpret poll results. The BPC will also provide interested parties with advice on best practice in the conduct and reporting of polls.

It also adds that while the words ‘poll’ and ‘survey’ are used to describe a variety of data collection exercises, the BPC is concerned only with polls and surveys “that set out to measure the opinions of representative samples”.[8] Possibly, this concern with the design of sampling methods and weighting procedures has obscured the purposes to which these can be put by some of the BPC’s members.  The BPC do not feel that any of this has anything to do with their responsibilities according to a April 23, 2010 email response from Nick Moon:

The BPC is only really concerned with ensuring that when polls are published the polling company provides sufficient detail on how the poll was conducted to allow readers of the poll to form a reasonable judgement about the poll’s reliability.  As such, I feel the issue you raise, while an interesting one, is outside our remit.

But by what understanding of reason and logic is the continual, systematic release of over-simplified political polling data in the mainstream media (coupled with the other processes of targeted lobbying) somehow taken to be objective and not leading?  The sound bite and wild extrapolations are designed to influence an election: this is the telos of the polling companies’ employment and affiliation, why they came into existence, and this and similar remarks could be made about the motives of private companies who employ them.  But the BPC seem unconcerned and indeed are made up of ‘expert’ media pundits who are paid for their many appearances.

The BPC’s Nick Moon works for the government[9] and is part of the large editorial advisory board of The International Journal of Market Research, other journals such as PR Week regularly outline the confluence of the PR, Lobbying, press and political milieux, for example:

The Ledbury Group aims to change attitudes towards brands or companies via ‘thought-leadership campaigns’. It has already secured Nestlé as a launch client. The outfit will be run by Michael Portillo’s former press secretary Malcolm Gooderham and Nick Bent, previously special adviser to Tessa Jowell at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The two men are backed by an eight-strong panel of consultants that will work on accounts. It includes: director of comms Lucy Jackson, Former director of comms Esra Erkel-Paler M& C Saatchi MD Damian Collins Populus (polling firm) founder Andrew Cooper and Former Mail on Sunday editor Jonathan Holborow.

The Ledbury Group also includes Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, a former aide to Peter Mandelson.[10] Set up by Gooderham and Bent, PR Week state that in 2008, it ‘managed to wrestle’ ASDA’s public affairs account from Bell Pottinger Public Affairs.[11]

Edelman, one of the world’s largest independent Public Relations Agencies,[12] also offer us an April 2009 video of the ‘Edelman and Populus Budget Breakfast 2009’, which (yet again) included Andrew Cooper, of Populus; John McFall MP; Phillip Hammond MP; Peter Riddell of the Times; and John Cridland, CBI.   Here the talk is of ‘private sector diplomacy’ co-operation and a ‘light touch’ of business by government.[13]

Of their activities, Edelman state:

The interests of your business can be critically affected by decisions taken daily in Westminster and Whitehall. Edelman provides clients with intelligence on these decisions, understanding the imperative behind them, identifying who is influencing them and ensuring our clients’ interests are represented — that is our bread and butter.[14]

To illustrate their reach, alongside this they provide a photograph of Nicholas Burns, with a caption that tells us he was a former Under Secretary of State at the State Department in the Bush administration and now Chair of Edelman’s Global Advisory Board.  Below that is a link to the National Defence Association (UKNDA),[15] which we encountered earlier and which Edelman ‘launched.’

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[1] http://www.britishpollingcouncil.org/officers.html

[2] Ipsos MORI (Simon Atkinson), Dods Polling (Matt Bricken), Populus (Andrew Cooper), TNS System 3 (Chris Eynon), Comres (Andrew Hawkins), ORB (Gordon Heald), Marketing Means (Anna-Marie Hill), YouGov (Peter Kellner), mruk research (Ivor Knox), GfK NOP (Nick Moon), Harris Interactive (George H. Terhanian).  Officers serving on the Sub-Committee on Disclosure are: Simon Atkinson (Ipsos MORI), Nick Moon (GfK NOP), David Butler (Fellow of Nuffield College Oxford), David Cowling (BBC), Peter Kellner (YouGov), David McKie (ex Deputy Editor of The Guardian), Adam Phillips (Past Chairman of the Market Research Society and Chairman of ESOMAR’s Professional Standards Committee), Colin Rallings (Professor at the Local Government Chronicle Election Centre at University of Plymouth) and Peter Riddell (The Times).

[3] Cooper qua an objective pollster, was quoted in the Financial Times (18 February, 2010) saying that Cameron’s background “has much less impact [with voters] than one might suppose […] Most people think that all [members of parliament] live elite lives and went to elite schools.”  He also regularly attacks Brown in the Times: “Brown is tarnished in the eyes of many voters” (Times, 23 September, 2006) and many other media outlets.

[4] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/ac5f0298-af38-11de-ba1c-00144feabdc0,dwp_uuid=b487eab2-b333-11de-ac13-00144feab49a.html

[5] http://www2.lse.ac.uk/LSEMagazine/pdf/Winter%202008/Media.pdf Finkelstein was also part of the SMF.

[6] http://blogs.ft.com/westminster/2007/11/nick-clegg-and-html/ See also: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/mar/14/david-cameron-embarrassment-over-tory-candidate-lobbying-links

[7] http://209.85.229.132/search?q=cache:gpP9-I5RjjkJ:www.ashscotland.org.uk/ash/files/ASH%20Scotland%20Smoking%20Health%20and%20Social%20Care%20Bill%20Written%20Evidence.doc+andrew+cooper+populus+%252B+survey+lobby&cd=9&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=uk

[8] http://www.britishpollingcouncil.org/statement.html

[9] http://www.nextstepsstudy.org.uk/who-is-the-study-for.asp

[10] http://www.spinprofiles.org/index.php/The_Ledbury_Group

[11] http://www.prweek.com/uk/news/search/802977/Ledbury-Group-brings-advisers-expansion/

[12] Edelman are an affiliate of Luther Pendragon in London.

[13] http://www.edelman.co.uk/edelman-insights/archive/budget-breakfast-2009-0

[14] http://www.edelman.co.uk/what-we-do/public-affairs

[15] http://www.edelman.co.uk/case-studies/national-defence-association-uknda

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