PUBLIC OPINION AND OPINION POLLS
Public opinion has been variously understood, both within the media and beyond. When used by scholars, it is often wrapped in inverted commas. Nonetheless, students of the media and of history have evinced little interest in the ways in which the term has been deployed, in Australia or elsewhere, nor in any of the terms that might stand as synonyms—‘morale’, during wartime; ‘common beliefs’, ‘public sympathy’, ‘the collective mass of opinion’, and so on, at any time; or, increasingly, what public opinion polls report.
In the days before polls were first published, discussions of public opinion often revolved around views reported by the press, argued in its columns or characteristic of its editorials. United Australia (1890), published by the NSW Government Printer to promote the Federation movement, was subtitled ‘Public Opinion in England as Expressed in the Leading Journals of the United Kingdom’. After the introduction of polls, the press retained its appeal as a source of public opinion, not least in relation to all those matters not covered by the polls. Historian Rosemary Campbell’s attempt to document the ‘critical mood’ of the ‘Australian public’ in 1944 cites newspaper reports of activities directed against American servicemen, letters to the editor of the Brisbane press—even a newspaper comic strip.
The polls afforded newspapers some independence from politicians, pressure groups and others who claimed to represent ‘public opinion’—indeed, polled opinion helped the press create a new understanding of public opinion. Polls provide the press with ‘exclusives’. And polls increasingly have afforded the press political leverage; they can be cited, albeit selectively, in support of the kinds of parties, leaders or public policy particular newspapers favour. Apart from ‘exit polls’, conducted with voters after they have cast their votes at elections or referenda, television stations have not ventured far into ‘precision journalism’ of this kind.
Initially conducted face to face, national polls were introduced to Australia in 1941 by Sir Keith Murdoch, the general manager of the Herald and Weekly Times (HWT)—a group that produced daily papers in every state capital except Sydney—and in Sydney by (Sir) Frank Packer’s Daily Telegraph. Murdoch acquired the rights to the Gallup name from George Gallup in Princeton and sent Roy Morgan (1908–85), an accountant working on the finance pages of the Melbourne Herald, to Princeton to learn how to run a poll. On his return, Morgan became the director of Australian Public Opinion Polls (The Gallup Method) (APOP), jointly owned by the HWT and associated newspapers in every state. Meanwhile, Packer hired Sylvia Ashby (1908–78), the country’s first female market researcher, to sample opinion in New South Wales. The Ashby poll disappeared before the end of World War II. From 1941 to 1970, APOP—also known as the Gallup Poll—was Australia’s only national poll.
In 1971, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) decided to commission surveys through the Australian Sales Research Bureau, subsequently Irving Saulwick & Associates. At the same time, Rupert Murdoch—keen to see Labor win the 1972 federal election and suspicious of Morgan’s Liberal leanings—established Australian Nationwide Opinion Polls (ANOP) for the Australian; however, in 1974, disgruntled with Labor, Murdoch cut it loose. In 1973, the HWT dumped Morgan after he boasted that he had never read a book on sampling, that when making predictions he ignored his own data, and that others should do the same. What now became the Morgan Poll, under Roy’s son Gary (1941– ), was adopted by the Bulletin; it moved to Time (Australia) in 1992, before returning to the Bulletin until after the 2001 election—which it got badly wrong. Having cut its ties with Morgan, the HWT hired Ian McNair (1933–2007) of McNair Anderson & Associates to run the poll. But in 1987, after Murdoch bought the HWT, APOP disappeared. Murdoch now founded Newspoll, run by Sol Lebovic (1949– ), to service the Australian. Between 1992 and 1995, McNair replaced Morgan at the Bulletin. In 1994, AGB McNair (later Nielsen McNair, ACNielsen, and now Nielsen) replaced Saulwick at the SMH and the Age; Saulwick had been dumped after concerns about his figures had been expressed by NSW Premier Bob Carr and senior journalists on the SMH.
From the 1970s, computer assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) was introduced, polling spread to more papers, and more market research firms became involved. However, none lasted long. McNair’s Quadrant Research polled for News Limited’s tabloids and ATN7, the Reark Group for John Fairfax & Sons’ Times on Sunday, Spectrum for the Australian and Australasian Research Strategies for the Bulletin. Confining their polling to particular states, Taverner Research Company polled for the Sun-Herald, Peter Gardner & Associates for the Adelaide Advertiser, Tasmanian Opinion Polls (and later Essential Market Research Services) for the Hobart Mercury and Patterson Market Research for the West Australian—and also later for the Canberra Times.
Faced by diminishing revenues, the press has moved increasingly from CATI to the much cheaper medium of Interactive Voice Recognition (IVR or ‘robos’)—using a recorded voice. Another cheap alternative is polling online; since 2007, Essential Research has polled online and released its results weekly through Crikey.
After a poor start—Morgan’s 1943 poll under-estimated Labor’s lead by 12 percentage points—the record of the polls in getting election predictions ‘right’ improved markedly; 1980 was the only occasion when they all failed to pick the winner. However, had someone in 1993 set up a pseudo-poll, conducted no interviews and simply worked on the assumption that at every election Labor would get 50 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, by 2010 their longterm record—a median error of 1.8 percentage points—would have been exactly the same as Newspoll’s, Nielsen’s or Morgan’s.
In the 1940s, polls were not prominently reported; it was not until the 1949 federal election that a pre-election Gallup Poll made the front page of the Herald. Poll stories were generally modest in size; they focused on reporting or paraphrasing the question, setting out the results and perhaps explaining the process of sampling, rather than saying anything about the implications of the results. And journalists’ interest in polls was much less intense than it would later become; once published, polls were rarely referred to. Rules covering the reporting of polls were set out in 1980 by the Australian Press Council (APC), but they are rarely given any attention.
While the introduction of polling met with considerable interest, it also attracted some hostility and scepticism. Hostility came from the left—from unions and from some Labor Members of Parliament—suspicious of Keith Murdoch, his connections with the conservative side of politics, and the capitalist press. As late as 1951, sceptical journalists, party officials and politicians largely ignored the poll data when calculating the chances of the referendum on communism being passed.
Critics of the polls have focused on a number of concerns. Initially, much of this focused on the relatively small number of respondents interviewed. But polls have also been criticised for creating opinion in the process of measuring it. And pollsters have been criticised for lacking independence (Gallup in the United States was not tied to any newspaper), for focusing their interests too narrowly (on voting intentions and the party leaders), and for framing questions in particular ways. The reporting of polls has also been criticised not only in relation to the standards set out by the APC, or in 1978 by the Market Research Society of Australia, but also for giving the polls too much prominence and for biased interpretations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, polls on voting intentions were manipulated—if not to make the Labor Party appear less popular than it was (a worry expressed by Labor) then to bring the figures into line with what Roy Morgan thought the result would be. However, there is also evidence of questions on a range of public policy issues, from communism and the Vietnam War to Aboriginal land rights, being framed by pollsters to produce particular results.
Polls may have come to dominate understandings of public opinion in the media, but they have certainly not eliminated other understandings. In a survey of newspaper, radio and television journalists conducted in 1992, among 245 ‘news-gatherers’, Julianne Schultz found fewer than half of the respondents prepared to describe ‘poll results’ as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ expressions of public opinion, similar proportions describing ‘letters to the editor’, ‘news reports’, ‘the judgement of well-informed people’, and ‘protest demonstrations’ this way. The proportions that ranked ‘editorials’, ‘parliamentary debate’ or ‘pressure group activity’ as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ was much lower. Had her research been conducted later, Schultz might have included talkback radio in her survey—now tracked by media monitoring—as well as retweets, comments on Facebook, and other social media measures.
Topping Schultz’s survey was ‘election results’. Ironically, this was one of the measures of public opinion in relation to issues that Gallup had set out to undermine. In an ideal world, elections—like polls—gave everyone an equal chance of participating, and an equal voice in determining the outcome; however, after an election—unlike a poll—no one could say exactly what policies voters had endorsed.
More recently, opinion polls conducted by polling organisations have been joined by polls run online or via the web or social media by newspapers, radio stations or television stations. In some cases, the audience is invited to join an ongoing panel; the SMH presents the responses to a series of questions asked of a sub-sample of its panel every Saturday. These devices, dismissed by professional market researchers because the samples are skewed, are devised to boost the engagement of the audience as well as the participants, and to allow the media to better understand its market.
These newer forms not only augment polls; they join earlier constructions of public opinion that continue to command space. These include interviews with individuals (‘vox pops’) chosen by journalists because they are ‘typical’ of some much bigger group. They also include linguistic turns that polls are rarely designed to capture—for example, descriptions of voters coming after politicians ‘with baseball bats’, being politically ‘disengaged’ or wishing ‘a plague on both their houses’.
Long before the polls, public opinion was seen as a force to which the media needed to respond. The task of the ‘popular press’, in the words of one Australian post-war commentator, Lewis Wilcher, was ‘to find out what the majority of the people are thinking and give expression to it’. Some newspapers are more attuned to this than others. Under the editorship of Col Allan, the Daily Telegraph became a byword for reflecting the priorities and positions of its working-class readership in Sydney’s western suburbs.
The media might also shape opinion. Arguing that the press was ‘in a unique position to direct public opinion’, Wilcher went on to ask: ‘for what, after all, is “public opinion” but the views of people in general about the news of the day?’ Media scholars would later distinguish various forms of media influence: (a) determining the issues audiences should think about (agenda setting); (b) shifting the audience’s position on particular issues (the way media influence is typically understood); and (c) providing the audience with a set of criteria against which to evaluate the actions of those responsible for causing things to go wrong or for fixing them (priming). The media might also influence public opinion by mobilising audiences to take certain actions (such as voting for a particular party) or demobilising audiences by persuading them to not act (refusing to boycott a product, for example).
REFs: R. Campbell, Heroes and Lovers (1989); M. Goot, ‘Fudging the Figures: The Split in the Polls, 1955–1975’, in B. Costar et al. (eds), The Great Labor Schism (2005) and ‘“A Worse Importation than Chewing Gum”: American Influences on the Australian Press and their Limits—the Australian Gallup Poll, 1941–1971’, Historical Jnl of Film, Radio and Television, 30(3) (2010); M. Goot and T. Rowse, Divided Nation? (2007); M. Goot and R. Tiffen, ‘Public Opinion and the Politics of the Polls’, in P. King (ed.), Australia’s Vietnam (1983); J. Schultz, Reviving the Fourth Estate (1998); L. Wilcher, Education, Press, Radio (1948).