Hard News by Russell Brown


Gower Speaks

On Monday and Tuesday this week I wrote posts analysing 3 News' and One News' respective reporting of their own political polls, conducted by Reid Research and Colmar Brunton respectively. In the second, I had some criticisms and a list of questions about the handling of a poll question about whether Cunliffe's use of a trust to channel donations was "worthy of a Prime Minister".

I prompted Gower for a response several times on Twitter: nothing. I got to the point of mocking his silence. But he called me this morning (his end was on speakerphone -- hi, Mark and Rachel!) and  it turns out he was offline because he'd had the day off for his birthday. I'd needled the man on his birthday! (He tried to deem the birthday part off-the-record after we'd been talking for half an hour, but what sort of journalist goes along with that?)

Anyway, it was a useful conversation in which TV3's political editor acknowledged my qualms about Monday night's story and eased most of them.

I had wanted to know exactly how the question was put to respondents. I now have the exact wording of the "worthy" question about Cunliffe, which is this:

David Cunliffe was found to be using a trust to conceal donations to his campaign for the Labour leadership. When the trust was identified, Cunliffe had to reveal the donors and pay back the money to those who wanted to remain anonymous. Do you think David Cunliffe's actions were worthy of a man who wants to be Prime Minister?

This is an appropriately-worded question. It doesn't beg a particular response. And it doesn't used the words "secret trust", which are common in 3 News's reporting of the Cunliffe, but, rightly in my view, not used by other media.

"The words 'secret trust' were not used in the question," Gower confirmed. "I used those in my report, but I'm an equal-opportunity secret trust guy. I called Key's Antoine's [dinner] secret. All politicians get furious equally on those. Key doesn't like admitting to golf games at the moment, so he's complaining about that. And my argument for that is that actually Cunliffe did keep it secret for four days and Key did keep his golf game secret. We would never have known about his golf game unless I found that picture in the Oravida office."

Crucially, the "worthy" question was asked after the Reid poll's regular series of perception questions, which always includes one on whether the subject is "more honest that most" politicians. (You can see the trends on those questions here on the Reid website.) So it couldn't have influenced the answering of the special question about Cunliffe.

I still think the reporting of the answers could have been better handled. Patrick was able to tell me that 54.6% of people who intended to vote Labour said no, his actions weren't worthy.

"They've already answered that they'll vote for Labour and who their preferred Prime Minister is. So it's about his actions at that point -- I don't think anyone is being asked to say he's unworthy of being Prime Minister. They're being asked whether it's a non-event or not. People did look at it and have a view on it and overwhelmingly they said it was not a good look."

I realise that time is tight in TV news, but including that information would have made the meaning of the answer clearer.

I'll also note this comment sent to me privately by a person who works in the research business:

Like you, I was incensed by the way TV3 reported on their David Cunliffe poll questions, albeit for slightly different reasons.  Specifically, they reported on the number who said that ‘more honest than most politicians’ applied to Key & Cunliffe.  What they didn’t tell us, however, was the number who said that that attribute did NOT apply, which matters because Key is still much better known than Cunliffe.  If Key was say 45% ‘applies’, 50% ‘does not apply’, 5% ‘unsure, that’s a very different meaning from if Key was at 45% ‘applies’, 30% ‘does not apply’ and 25% ‘unsure’.

The effect of the way that question was presented is that the lower profile politician, whoever it is, is always at a disadvantage.  It may have been that Cunliffe was 26% applies, 74% does not apply, or it may have been that he was 26% applies, 10% does not apply, 64% unsure, but we just don’t know.

This is why it would be good if the detailed responses were available on the polling firm's website. And that's an area where Reid could take a tip from Colmar Brunton, who have begun providing background data as soon as possible after the headine figures are reported each night (their social media game is pretty sharp too). That information could also go on the TV3 website, but I know how hard it is to get data up there in a specialised format -- and that the people who manage the website content already have a substantial workload

"I'd love to have it up there," said Gower. "Usually I'd have blogged on a lot of the stuff I've told you, because I like to give a bit more the next day in my blog.  We're working bloody hard on a lot of interesting ideas for things we do can with this information in the lead-up to the election, so watch this space."

There was, as Andrew Geddis noted in comments for yesterday post, also a question about Judith Collins and Oravida, and Patrick was happy to tell me there was also an Oravida question about John Key, and a fourth "policy question". Four is the contracted limit for "special" questions in each poll round. The unbroadcast questions are very likely to turn up in future reports.

Why was the Cunliffe question chosen over the others? Because, said Gower, the most interesting element of the poll was the "collapse" in Cunliffe's personal support.

"If it had been the other way around, if Key had gone down, I may well have gone with Oravida on Monday night. If there had been a drop that could be attributed to Oravida I would most likely have gone in with the Oravida question."

Interestingly, One's Colmar Brunton poll did show a drop for National and they did go with their Collins question.

And what of the the sketching out of a likely House on the basis of New Zealand First missing out by an essentially meaningless 0.1% of polled voting intentions?

"I stick 100% to what our figures tell us. I know that National's going down in the Colmar and we've got them going up, but there really is only one option in terms of that. Winston comes in at 4.9 and I instantly think, hey, he's good for 5% on election day.

"But you've got to stick with the information that you're given. And you've got to stick with it from month to month and pretend that there is nothing else out there, for the sanctity of that information.

"All the questions that you have in your mind about those numbers, I have those questions too. But it's bloody good information. If we started introducing different things, it would just be a clusterfuck. So everyone else can have their fun with the poll of polls."

I was also critical of what I called 3 News' "lazy" habit of featuring John Key as commentary talent in their stories, sometimes to the extent of using the Prime Minister to explain the angle of the stories. Gower said they've also had complaints about the frequent use of Russel Norman in a similar context.

"It's something we always have to keep watching. We always have to go and get comment, you always want a counter-comment. And, for want of a better description, you get guys having free hits.

"It's one of the true weaknesses of television that in order to achieve balance you have a counter-soundbite. So we have to watch how much we use Key, we have to watch how much we use Norman or Cunliffe, we have to watch free hits full stop. [But] we also have to have the opposite person in there.

"Key is in the media more often and I'll quite often watch the news bulletin here and see that there's a story, not done by my guys, that has Key in it. And suddenly we have Key in four or five stories and I have to say, 'hey, we've got to get him out of one of these bloody things'.

"But he was the right guy for this story. It was a story about Cunliffe and he's Cunliffe's opposite and that's why I used him in that. I'm not saying that he's not in there too much, because as I told you, I'm actively trying to get the guy out of there sometimes."

Because we were talking specifically about the comments and questions in my own post (and I hadn't expected him to call) we didn't range beyind those. But Gower concluded with a commitment:

"I'm always happy to answer any questions about [the polls]. We just want to get out and talk to people about what we're doing. And that goes right through with all of my work. I'm making a really big effort in the next six months to communicate with people and talk to them about what we're doing.

 "As political editor, the role has changed for guys like me in the last three years. There is a lot more interest and commentary and people able to talk about what I'm doing. That's great, okay? Bring it on, I love it. Twitter, everything. What I want to do is make myself more open to people so that when they do have questions about what I'm doing, I'm talking to them about it. And that's the changing level of accountability that someone in my job has to have.

"I'm not just going to do my news stories, say my piece and go home to Petone and turn on the TV and watch Shortland Street. I'm in a highly visible role."

So I could write up the "3 News political editor in 'not watching Campbell Live shock'" story for our gossip column. But hey, it was the guy's birthday, right?

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