Giving Britain’s children a bad name

Many of today’s papers run stories based on a poll for Barnardo’s that suggests adults have a contempt for children, whom they regard as “feral”, “beginning to behave like animals” or “angry, violent and abusive”.

The Times is so struck by this story that it also runs a leader, under the heading Suffer Little Children, declaring that “the low esteem in which we hold our young shames both them and us.”

Hang on, guys! This is a poll by a charity with a TV advertising campaign to plug. It also asks some of the most leading questions it’s possible to imagine.

To read the stories one might suppose that these descriptions of children sprung unbidden to the minds of adults asked their opinion. Far from it. The question actually asked by ICM Research ran as follows: “Below are a number of comments made about young people in the UK. Could you tell us how much you agree or disagree with each of the statements?

It then offered three statements. 1. Children in this country are becoming feral 2. British children are beginning to behave like animals 3. The trouble with youngsters is that they are angry, violent and abusive.

All three are hostile, negative opinions. The poll gives the impression that it is impossible to hold anything but a negative opinion. The polling took place on October 19/20, at a time when the papers were regularly running stories about the riots in English cities. All the adjectives are put into respondents’ mouths, and the responses are all but identical to all three questions.

Yet even so, less than half respondents agreed. To the “feral” statement only 14 per cent agreed strongly, and 30 per cent “tended to agree”. The other two statements got similar responses. Those agreeing, however, outnumbered those disagreeing.

If they had been asked a different question – say, “Britain’s children get a lot of criticism but I think they’re a decent bunch, on the whole” – I reckon that would have got a majority, too. It’s called leading the witness.

This loaded poll set up the chief executive of Barnardo’s, Anne Marie Carrie, to declare to The Times: “I have worked for 27 years in children’s services and I have never been more dismayed and depressed than now. There is no recognition of the children that go to school, work hard, volunteer, who are part of Brownies or Cubs.”

How does she know? She carried out a survey and didn’t even ask this question. The Times obligingly played the game by publishing a graphic that added to the ICM findings a few selected statistics about teenage abortions and minors in the criminal justice system, in case anybody hadn’t got the message.Here's The Times' headline:


The reason for the survey is a Barnardo’s TV campaign that launches tonight and emphasises the benefits of believing in children who may be having a hard time. To give the message credibility, the charity set up a dud poll designed to prove the opposite – that most people think children are past saving. That enables it to feel good, and the rest of us guilty.

And the papers fell for it. Not only The Times and the BBC, but the Daily Express, Metro, the Daily Mirror, the Press and Journal, the Yorkshire Post and the Edinburgh Evening News, by my count.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Never believe a poll until you have read the questions it asked. And never trust a charity to tell the unvarnished truth.  

Suffer little children! It makes me hopping mad. And no, I shan’t be contributing to Barnardo’s.