- UK broadcasters have made the unusual decision not to commission polls for this year’s general election.
- The 2015 election, EU referendum and US election were not pollsters’ “finest hours,” TV executives tell Business Insider.
- More resources being ploughed into original journalism.
The UK’s biggest broadcasters have all but ditched general election polls this year.
While newspaper appetite for polling appears undimmed, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and Sky News have all admitted that they are not overly interested in predicting the result.
Moreover, the broadcasters have made polls the supporting act, rather than the star turn of their election coverage. And with just days remaining in the 2017 campaign, don’t expect things to change.
Why? The TV organisations argue — to varying degrees — that voting intentions surveys have lost their lustre after pollsters got it disastrously wrong on the 2015 election, Brexit, and Donald Trump.
‘A total waste of time’
ITV News anchor Tom Bradby puts it more succinctly. “It should be abundantly clear by now that the polls are a total waste of time,” he said in a sequence of tweets on Wednesday night.
ITV News has, unusually, not commissioned a single poll this year. Instead, the guiding mantra in the newsroom over the past few weeks has been “people, not polls.”
The broadcaster has extended its 10 p.m. bulletin by 10 minutes on weeknights and handed over time to reporters in the field, talking directly to voters about their intentions.
Specifically, extra resources have gone into sending correspondents Penny Marshall and Martin Geissler on fact-finding missions around Britain. The “What Matters” strand has explored themes including social care and immigration.
“I’m not going to criticise polling whatsoever, but they didn’t have their finest hour in 2015/16,” ITV News editor Geoff Hill told Business Insider.
“We’re doing our own reporting and analysis. At this particular time, I want to spend more money on getting out and reporting.”
It’s a similar story over at the BBC. The broadcaster is not commissioning polls at a national level, although there is some ad-hoc polling going on at its local news and radio services.
Instead, the BBC has shifted the focus away from hypotheticals and placed a greater emphasis on policy. “We’re focused on the choice rather than the outcome scenarios,” an insider said.
It’s an admission that the BBC didn’t get it entirely right in 2015. At the time, polls predicted a hung parliament and huge energy was expended on predicting the colour of a coalition government, which could have been led by former Prime Minister David Cameron, or Labour’s Ed Miliband.
“We and all other media organisations allowed the poll numbers to infect our thinking: There was too much ‘coalitionology’ as a result,” BBC News director James Harding said in a speech soon after the last general election. “With the benefit of hindsight, we would all have been better off with less discussion of deals and allowed the dissection of policy.”
Sky kills the ‘Poll Bug’
Sky News made a decision at the start of the 2017 campaign to remove its polling aggregator tool, known as the ‘Poll Bug,’ from on-screen graphics. Like ITV, it has put a greater emphasis on journalism in the field, while specialist correspondents have applied more scrutiny to policy.
Economics editor Ed Conway, for example, did a detailed analysis of each party manifesto in a regular “Election Forensics” segment. This meant that on the day Labour’s blueprint for government was published, he costed it up and came to the conclusion that the party had managed to balance its spending pledges.
Polling remains in the mix, with Sky leaning on its own data tools, which use traditional and other polling techniques to produce largely qualitative information.
Jonathan Levy, Sky News’ director of news-gathering and operations, said its approach has been more “sophisticated” than in 2015. “I feel a lot more comfortable with what we’re doing this year,” he said.
Levy explained: “The problem with an over-focus on the polls, it means you’re not making the most of your own journalism and digging deep beneath the surface.
“While we were all focused on headline poll numbers in 2015, which didn’t turn out to be particularly accurate, the pattern of David Cameron going repeatedly to the south-west [of England] was what was important. That’s how he won the election, by taking Lib Dem seats.”
Channel 4 News has also not commissioned any polls (although it made the same decision in 2015), while Channel 5 News editor Rachel Corp told TV industry trade magazine Broadcast that it had ditched them completely because of “scepticism” among viewers.
Levy said he was “not surprised” most broadcasters are on the same page. He described the change of strategy as a “journey” that started with the US election last year, when Sky placed less emphasis on voter surveys. It was always Sky’s intention to wean itself off polls in time for a 2020 election, he said. It just had to move quicker after Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election.
The one poll that matters
Ignoring polls is impossible, however. Particularly when some begin to show a dramatic narrowing in the race for 10 Downing Street, as they have in recent days. Hill said ITV News often injects these figures into live studio discussions between Bradby and political editor Robert Peston. “We are acknowledging the polls,” he stressed.
They continue to create headlines elsewhere, as well. Newspapers have remained steadfastly supportive of polls this year. Even Business Insider commissioned its first UK general election poll last month. But within these surveys, there are huge discrepancies. Only this Wednesday, a TNS poll gave the Tories a 10 point lead over Labour, while on the same night, YouGov put the Conservative lead at a mere three points.
These fluctuations are partly why the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and Sky News have taken a step back. Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear told Broadcast: “We can see that Theresa May’s U-turns and a couple of good appearances from Jeremy Corbyn have been reflected in the polling, which makes them good indicators. But they no longer have the same purpose — they don’t lead stories.”
But there is still one poll that really matters to the broadcasters — and that’s the exit poll. A collaboration between the BBC, ITV, and Sky, it’s an enormous undertaking which asks people how they have voted, rather than how they intend to vote. It will be published at 10 p.m. on June 8.
Famously, the 2015 exit poll contradicted the previous voting intention surveys, which had all pointed to a hung parliament, by predicting a Tory majority. It flabbergasted the Westminster bubble when it was announced. Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown famously told the BBC that he would “eat my hat” if it was correct.
“We still have faith in the exit poll, which was remarkably accurate in 2015,” Sky’s Levy said. “I remember when we heard the result 20 minutes before we went on air, it was a really jaw-dropping moment.”
Broadcasters are hoping they’re not caught off-guard again.
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