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Crikey gives the Canberra Times and Noel Towell a well deserved leathering

johnboy 31 October 2012 30

This story’s been sent in by Crikey:

The paper, the poll and the almighty ACT stuff-up

CATHY ALEXANDER | OCT 31, 2012 12:28PM

Two days before the ACT election, The Canberra Times splashed with the results of an exclusive opinion poll: “Labor will hold power,” ran the front-page headline.

The Patterson Research poll tipped Labor would coast to victory with the help of the Greens, who would retain their four seats, while the Liberals would make little headway. Previously, some commentators and bloggers had argued it would be a close race as the Liberals gained traction and the Greens struggled. Those forecasts were junked. The poll set the result in stone before ballots were cast on October 20. Sportsbet paid out on a Labor victory?—?the day before the election.

There was just one problem. The poll was wrong.

The Liberals won more votes than Labor; the major parties tied on eight seats apiece. The Greens haemorrhaged votes and lost three of their four seats (see a comparison of the poll with the results here). The parties are now negotiating over who will form government, and while the most likely result is a Labor-Greens alliance there is a chance the Liberals could form a government.

The fiasco of The Canberra Times’ dud poll?—?the sole opinion poll of the campaign, in the territory’s sole daily newspaper?—?raises questions around the national obsession with polls, along with questions on the way they are conducted and reported on. Psephologists are scratching their heads, the ACT Liberals are fuming and The Crimes has gone very quiet.

ABC election analyst Antony Green told Crikey the poll was clearly wrong and pollsters and the paper had “egg on their face”. ”Opinion polls should be published on the astrology page,” said Green (who, it should be noted, reported on the poll on his election blog).

The image below shows The Canberra Times election result prediction on the left (from October 18) and the actual result on the right:

graphic

Some quotes from The Canberra Times on October 18:

    — “The Greens … are expected to garner enough votes to retain their four MLAs” (Assembly reporter Noel Towell)

    — “Today’s result must cast considerable doubt on the strategy and tactics employed by the opposition for the past four years …” (Towell)

    — “Prepared to go with status quo” (headline, editorial)

    — “[Liberal leader Zed Seselja] seems not to have translated to greater support in the electorate … (he) has not resonated with most voters” (editorial)

So what went wrong? The random phone poll of 1203 people was conducted from October 11-14; Patterson says the data was weighted against ABS census figures. The undecided vote was 7-10%, and this was “allocated among parties and candidates using polling formula”.

Keith Patterson, managing director of the Patterson Research Group, toldCrikey: “I can understand the queries about the ACT poll. It certainly raised eyebrows here as well, resulting in something of a witch hunt?—?but nothing was untoward.” Patterson emailed Crikey a Powerpoint on his company which states “Our Record is Pretty Good”.

Sources said that privately, Patterson has been saying he was not sure what went wrong, but had several theories. Some newspaper insiders reckon the Greens had a dud final week in the campaign?—?after the poll was taken.

Crikey phoned The Canberra Times acting editor Grant Newton, who declined to comment. The reporter who wrote the stories, likeable Irishman Noel Towell, referred questions to the editor.

Green was not so reclusive. He says to get the poll that wrong, “you’ve done something wrong methodologically”. The sample size and proportion of uncertain voters seemed workeable, he says, suggesting the problem may be that questions were not asked in a way that reflected the way people actually think in a polling booth.

It may be the poll failed to capture all options on the ballot paper, or named parties rather than individual candidates. Green says the survey results may not have been accurately weighted (i.e. tweaking the results to take into account demographic differences between the surveyed group and the population).

Polling experts told Crikey that Patterson Research may not be seen in the same light as the big players, Newspoll (The Australian) and Nielsen (Fairfax), who poll on politics frequently and agonise over methodology and weighting of results.

Green says the problem is not just the Patterson poll but the way the newspaper wrote it up, gave it prominence and assigned it certainty.

ACT Liberal leader Zed Seselja?—?who has been at war with the paper?—?agreed. ”It was obviously spectacularly wrong, as was the analysis that went with it,” he told Crikey. “I’d be fascinated to hear their explanation. It certainly raises questions about The Canberra Times’ credibility … almost all their coverage was designed to steer people away from the Liberal Party.”

Seselja reckons the poll and its coverage may have cost the Liberals votes and sapped momentum from its campaign. But Green says it’s not clear whether a poor poll cost votes because Australians often warmed to the underdog.


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30 Responses to Crikey gives the Canberra Times and Noel Towell a well deserved leathering
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cmdwedge 4:59 pm 01 Nov 12

Ah! I’ve been hunting around for a few days and have finally tracked down an old Wikipedia article. I’m nearly certain that Noel Towell was deliberately hoping to have an effect on the election outcome by using this technique:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bandwagon_effect#Use_in_politics

Sorry it didn’t work for you, Mr. Towell.

watto23 4:50 pm 01 Nov 12

Regardless of who becomes chief minister, it will still be difficult in a way. It would be harder for Zed to get things done than Katy, because if Rattenbury decides to vote Zed in as Chief Minister, he can still vote with labor whenever he wants to and vice versa.

If anything its probably the reason that having 2 or 3 cross benchers is better than 1, because unless he consults his colleagues and listens to them, a lot of decisions would be based on his opinions alone. With multiple cross benchers at least a consensus is formed. I could be wrong and maybe he will consult the greens party for guidance……

Tetranitrate 11:25 am 01 Nov 12

PantsMan said :

And the worst bit is how during the four year term of the Labor Government they were just apologists for Labor.

For example, lets do a quick analysis of the health stats scandal:

* Health stats doctored in NSW: — Daily Telegraph assassinates the Minister and bureaucrats, both compelled to give evidence at ICAC Star Chamber hearings, criminal charges laid, prison time.

* Health stats doctored in ACT: — Katy tells Noel she’s really angry, but someone has told her that it’s been fixed so everything is OK, The Crimes prints the spin on page one, Auditor (appointed from the ACT PS) says that systems should be fixed, no follow-up.

A disgrace.

Don’t forget to compare that to the mileage they gave to the pointless timesheet non-scandal. Front page after front page, weeks on end.

Most media outlets would see the health statistics scandal as an opportunity to sell papers (or get ad clickthroughs), the Canberra times saw it as a chance to run interference for the government.

What an absolute joke of a paper. Even the Telegraph and Herald Sun do a better job of being objective.

dpm 11:14 am 01 Nov 12

johnboy said :

The Assembly meets next tuesday and the first order of business is electing a speaker, which should give some indication of how the wind’s blowing. Then they elect the Chief Minister.

Of course an announcement can be made any time before that.

Even if the Greens want to go with Labor though, the longer they hold out the better deal they get. So why wouldn’t they?

Thanks!
If nothing was going to happen in the Assembly till next Tuesday anyway, then it’s no big deal I suppose. I was just concerned the caretaker period was being extended while he decided, which doesn’t seem to be the case then.
Like most things in life, i’m clueless about the Assembly workings. And instead of researching it, I ask stupid questions here! Sorry about that. Hahaha!

johnboy 10:40 am 01 Nov 12

dpm said :

BTW, how long is the super-green now allowed to navel gaze and collect bribes before finally pontificating and announcing his descision (that he probably knew from the get go)? What’s the hold up? Seriously…..
The only thing I remember about him from last time around was endorsing the people who broke into CSIRO to whipper snipper the GM crops…… and now he holds the balance of power. Awesome!

The Assembly meets next tuesday and the first order of business is electing a speaker, which should give some indication of how the wind’s blowing. Then they elect the Chief Minister.

Of course an announcement can be made any time before that.

Even if the Greens want to go with Labor though, the longer they hold out the better deal they get. So why wouldn’t they?

dpm 10:37 am 01 Nov 12

BTW, how long is the super-green now allowed to navel gaze and collect bribes before finally pontificating and announcing his descision (that he probably knew from the get go)? What’s the hold up? Seriously…..
The only thing I remember about him from last time around was endorsing the people who broke into CSIRO to whipper snipper the GM crops…… and now he holds the balance of power. Awesome!

johnboy 10:21 am 01 Nov 12

So, i’m slowly getting the feeling that you and Noel don’t get on too well?! Must be great when you meet up at pressers and the like! 🙂

Never met the man. I judge him solely on his work.

PantsMan 10:20 am 01 Nov 12

And the worst bit is how during the four year term of the Labor Government they were just apologists for Labor.

For example, lets do a quick analysis of the health stats scandal:

* Health stats doctored in NSW: — Daily Telegraph assassinates the Minister and bureaucrats, both compelled to give evidence at ICAC Star Chamber hearings, criminal charges laid, prison time.

* Health stats doctored in ACT: — Katy tells Noel she’s really angry, but someone has told her that it’s been fixed so everything is OK, The Crimes prints the spin on page one, Auditor (appointed from the ACT PS) says that systems should be fixed, no follow-up.

A disgrace.

PantsMan 10:08 am 01 Nov 12

Jivrashia said :

The random phone poll of 1203 people sounds significant, but did that cover the ACT demography evenly?

I’m assuming the phone call is to a household during business hours. Well, there’s your problem.

The only people likely to be there are:
– retired people
– stay at home mums and dads with bubs

What the poll showed was how THEY would have voted, but excluded the rest of ACT.

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

I, and about everyone else I know, do not have a phone at home.

CorruptTimes 9:56 am 01 Nov 12

In a few short years, Quinn has managed to shrink circulation below 30,000 and alienate the majority of staff. It went largely unnoticed that every senior female journalist left during the recent purge. Why was that?

Quinn himself has a reputation as a “hard newspaper man” with little love for the internet. He reportedly doesn’t use it.

Neither displays any acumen for the digital age, just a pair of pitiful old school media types bailing desperately while doing damage to their employer and expectations of an effective fourth estate in Canberra.

All of this would be worrying if The Canberra Times was viewed as a credible news service, which it clearly is not. The situation should self-correct shortly when the captain finally manages to sink this black ship.

Matt_Watts 7:47 am 01 Nov 12

Did it push voters to feel safe in lodging a protest vote against the incumbants? Did it demotivate Liberal candidates and volunteers at a crucial point in the campaign? We will never know.

It would be interesting if we could analyse any trends with the pre-poll voting to see if there was a shift one way or another on the publication of the article, but those votes were obviously not segregated, so no point dwelling on the question of impact.

I once invited Noel Towell to visit Belconnen – you know, to get him out of his bubble – but he didn’t seem too enthused. Perhaps he would have been less over the top in his reporting had he spent time with different crowds over a period of time and realised that not everyone in Canberra shared his CT groupthink.

HiddenDragon 11:15 pm 31 Oct 12

It may be that the CT actually believes the tendentious piffle it has published about ACT politics, or perhaps it has all just been a misguided effort to pander to, and win more paying readers from, the “progressive” elements of the Canberra community. Whatever the motivations, in my view, the CT’s already scrappy reputation has been further tarnished and, by effectively extending a two-fingered salute to the 40%+ of the electorate who did not vote Labor or Green, it has probably succeeded in alienating many people who would, otherwise, actually be prepared to pay to read an old-style local publication.

c_c™ 11:07 pm 31 Oct 12

Rqdq said :

Unfortunately for Noel Towell his name is on it.

He still wrote it, it’s not like Rod did it then put his underling’s name on it.

Rqdq said :

Quinn has only lived in Canberra a few years and knows nothing about the city or its people…and it shows.

Again, still his fault. Fairfax may have pushed him in, but if he’s lived here ‘a few years’ and still knows nothing, then it’s his fault. Either he should do his job or he should quit.

Have to ask at this point thought, what on earth is Jack Waterford’s job at CT – ‘editor at large’
Where does he fit in the chain of command, or does he exist outside it, simply using his CT business card to get into shindigs around town.

Rqdq 8:44 pm 31 Oct 12

The real problem is the editor of The Canberra Times Rod Quinn. He is the one who ultimately makes the decision what goes on the front page. Unfortunately for Noel Towell his name is on it. For those who dont know Rod Quinn was pushed into the editorship from Newcastle when nobody wanted the job a few years ago and Fairfax management have been actively canvassing for a replacement for sometime but nobody wants the job. Quinn has only lived in Canberra a few years and knows nothing about the city or its people…and it shows.

c_c™ 8:28 pm 31 Oct 12

Patterson Research, what else do they do? They’re Perth based, seem to have no election polling experience, and say barely anything about their work on their website. Who knows, they might be great at doing brand awareness and very targeted sampling, but given the complexity of Hare-Clarke, I doubt they would have done the modelling competence in house.

caf 8:01 pm 31 Oct 12

el said :

Jivrashia said :

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

Agreed. RA readership would have to be getting up to (or even eclipsing?) CT readership by now.

It’s got nothing to do with readership. CT didn’t poll their readers – they commissioned a polling company to poll ACT electors at random. The RiotACT audience, like the audience for any media, is skewed.

el 7:42 pm 31 Oct 12

Jivrashia said :

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

Agreed. RA readership would have to be getting up to (or even eclipsing?) CT readership by now.

caf 7:40 pm 31 Oct 12

Jivrashia said :

The random phone poll of 1203 people sounds significant, but did that cover the ACT demography evenly?

I’m assuming the phone call is to a household during business hours. Well, there’s your problem.

The only people likely to be there are:
– retired people
– stay at home mums and dads with bubs

What the poll showed was how THEY would have voted, but excluded the rest of ACT.

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

The pollsters usually call in the evening. They ask demographic questions so they know if they’re getting a biased sample – there’s a quota for responses from each demographic group, and the overall result is weighted to reflect the demographics of the voting population as a whole.

Polling is at its heart a probabilistic affair. For every poll there’s a chance that random sampling error has thrown your result way out from the true value – for my money the most likely explanation is that Patterson / the CT just got unlucky (it was a so-called “rogue poll”). Such is the risk you run when you commission only one poll in an election campaign! If you run several, chances are they won’t all be outliers.

Gungahlin Al 5:20 pm 31 Oct 12

thehutch said :

It was pretty dumb for the CT to support its poll with so much confidence. Blind freddy knew the Greens would struggle to win 4 seats again.

However, Zed is in LaLa land if he thought the poll cost him votes. It most likely worked the other way.

Pretty close assessment. I think the sheer audacity of the claims, coupled with it being the only “credible” poll done prior to “the only poll that counts”, meant that a lot of otherwise apathetic people were mobilised, or swinging voters re-swung, and I’m sure it actually hurt both ALP and Greens votes. (Not making excuses, just one of a number of factors methinks.)

I also think that a simplistic poll focusing on three parties could never have done justice to such a fragmented voting situation, with the Chic Henry effect, the Val Jeffery/Zed move effect, and the stunning sign wars launched by several Molonglo candidates. Toss in the wrap-up of Greens policy announcements a week out as Paperboy said, and the poll never had a hope of accuracy (despite having lucked it last time – correlation causation again – second time today…).

So yes – the CT headlines seem rather naive. Aided by 20-20 hindsight.
As to whether you park that on Towell’s doorstep or Newton’s, I dunno. Or care.

Jivrashia 5:14 pm 31 Oct 12

The random phone poll of 1203 people sounds significant, but did that cover the ACT demography evenly?

I’m assuming the phone call is to a household during business hours. Well, there’s your problem.

The only people likely to be there are:
– retired people
– stay at home mums and dads with bubs

What the poll showed was how THEY would have voted, but excluded the rest of ACT.

Suggest that they employ modern technology such as online polls next time.
A poll on RiotACT would have probably yielded a more accurate picture.

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