Cameron’s aide twists figures on aid

A story about British public opinion on international aid published in the dog days of August managed the unusual feat of a double distortion. The figures it reports are twisted by the way the poll question was phrased; and then The Daily Telegraph twisted the twisted figures to yield a story it found palatable.

The story concerns a poll attributed to Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s personal pollster. It reports that the pollster asked “even as we deal with our deficit, Britain is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world and we should be proud we’re continuing our commitment to international development.” It is reported that 48 per cent agreed with this statement and 38 per cent disagreed, while the rest did not know.

But of course this is a loaded question. Imagine for example if Mr Cooper had asked: “With Britain struggling with its deficit, taxpayers should not be spending billions of pounds on aid to corrupt dictatorships in other countries.” I doubt that 48 per cent would then oppose this proposition.

If this poll had been conducted by a member of the Market Research Society, the pollsters’ trade body, it would have been contrary to its code. That states that pollsters must ensure that “respondents are not led towards a particular point of view.”

We are not told who Mr Cooper used to conduct his poll. However, he is on leave of absence as a member of the senior team of the respected polling firm, Populus. I asked Populus a  month ago if it wished to make it clear that it had nothing to do with this poll, whose bias it must surely deplore. But I had no response.

The results, however, must have seemed deplorable to someone at the Telegraph. Right wing Tories have been grumbling at the government’s policy of raising aid to 0.7 per cent of GDP, which privileges it amongst public expenditure at a time of deep cuts. Evidence of public support for the policy is not welcome to them.

So the report says that “fewer than half of voters” believe in giving “hundreds of millions” in aid and that David Cameron is struggling to convince the public that continued spending on international development is justified. The Telegraph’s headline (below, August 4 2011, page 2) suggests that the poll urged Cameron to cut the aid budget.


But by a clear ten-point majority on this (admittedly biased) question the public backs the government’s commitment to aid. The Telegraph read this as ”voters doubtful on Cameron aid policy.” It reports the message as being of “a government struggling to convince the public that continued spending”{any spending?]   on aid is justified. In my household, both the poll and the newspaper ended up in the rubbish bin where they belong.