The Pink News smear that debases the debate

The online newspaper Pink News, “Europe’s largest gay news service”, has accused the polling company ComRes, the Coalition for Marriage, as well as Catholic Voices of producing a “misleading” opinion poll on attitudes to marriage. The survey in mid-March found overwhelming support among the British population for retaining the current definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.

The survey, commissioned by Catholic Voices, and conducted online by ComRes using a sample of 2,000 adults, found overwhelming (84%) support for marriage's benefits to children (being raised by their biological parents), as well as strong majority support for marriage being promoted by the state, and very firm (70%) support for the current understanding of marriage to be retained. The full tables can be viewed here. A summary of the findings is at the back of the Catholic Voices briefing paper, 'In Defence of Conjugality', which is here.

Subsequently, the Coalition for Marriage quoted the headline figure of 70% -- the proportion of British people who believe marriage should continue to be defined as between a man and a woman -- in national newspaper adverts, to coincide with the publication of the Government's consultation paper. The advert (pictured) is running at present on the Guido Fawkes political blog.

Under the headline, 'Exclusive: regulator to assess claim Coalition for Marriage ad "misleads" readers', Pink News accuses ComRes, an award-winning polling and research consultancy and member of the British Polling Council, of a “dodgy” poll. The article quoted a Stonewall activist as saying: ‘The fact that opponents of equal marriage use apparently dodgy polls to support their position does suggest they’re worried they’re losing the argument.’”

ComRes, whose clients include the BBC and many of Britain’s best known companies, has written to Pink News asking it to remove that allegation (and that quote has now been removed). In its letter, ComRes also complains that it was never given a chance to respond to the extraordinary allegations prior to publication.

Catholic Voices, which commissioned the ComRes poll, was also never contacted prior to the article’s publication, in obvious breach of journalistic ethics.

We too strongly reject the claim that the poll was misleading.

The article deploys the well-known tactical device of arranging a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), and then reporting as news the fact that the ASA is considering the complaint (which it has the obligation to do). Having cast “official” doubt on the survey, Pink News then feels entitled to describe the poll as “controversial”.

Yet the only thing controversial about the poll is its unwelcome result for the same-sex marriage lobbyists.

Pink News tries to stand up its allegations by referring to an earlier Pink News article by Edmund Broch of 9 March, which makes a lengthy, valiant but ultimately unsuccessful effort to cast doubt on the poll’s methodology. In fact, the methods which the article claims were used are flatly contradicted by details of the survey’s methodology on the ComRes website.

On the basis of the earlier piece Pink News now claims that "the poll statement did not specify that marriage should be between a man and a woman exclusively." Yet the poll's statement 2 made this absolutely clear. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement, 'Marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman".

What bothers Pink News is not so much what our poll says as what it doesn't say. According to the article, "the survey did not mention gay marriages or any other alternative to the status quo when asking respondents to consider whether the current definition of marriage should remain." On this basis, the poll was declared to be "misleading", "dodgy" and even “offensive”. 

But the purpose of the poll was not to gauge support for same-sex marriage. Many previous polls have done this, and the results have been well publicised. They are also highly ambiguous. A recent Telegraph/ICM poll found “opinion finely balanced, with 45 per cent supporting the move in principle, 36 per cent opposing it, and the rest saying they do not know". A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times meanwhile found that “43% of those polled said they support gay marriage, while 32% said they supported civil partnerships but opposed gay marriage".

The Telegraph's poll suggested the highest levels of support for SSM, but even then 78% of people polled felt this wasn't a government priority, and 49% of people felt that teachers ought not to be allowed teach that SSM was the same as marriage as we know it. The YouGov poll found more people opposed to SSM than favouring it.

None of these polls, however, made clear that introducing gay marriage involves redefining marriage.

The ComRes poll for Catholic Voices was designed to assess support for the state promoting the existing understanding of marriage on the basis that marriage provides an environment for the upbringing of children by their biological parents. The survey found overwhelming support for this idea, and a rejection by 70% of the population of redefining marriage.

Although we chose not to point this out at the time, the 70% figure is likely, in fact, to be a conservative figure. Telephone polling on socially controversial issues tends to produce less truthful answers than online polls. And online polls also tend to produce more 'liberal' views, because computer users tend to be younger and more urban.

How can we reconcile 70% in favour of retaining the current definition of marriage, as our poll showed, with 43/45% in favour of gay marriage, as the ICM and YouGov polls showed?  The answer is that many people do not grasp that introducing same-sex marriage necessarily redefines marriage. If they did realise this, our poll shows that they are likely to reject the Government’s attempt to introduce gay marriage. 

In his 3 April meeting with religious leaders, David Cameron said:

I'll just make this point, which is that inevitably there's a consultation, inevitably there will at some stage be a vote and inevitably there'll be some quite strong arguments between now and then, and there'll be some strong words used. But I hope we can keep the strength of the language at a reasonable level and that goes for both the proponents of gay marriage and indeed the opponents of gay marriage

Defamatory and baseless accusations, transparently cheap capaigning tactics, and the unjustified smearing of a survey by one of the country's most reputable pollsters simply because its results are unwelcome, are not, we suggest, in the spirit of the discourse called for by the prime minister. Let's hope that after Easter the debate over gay marriage can become serious and thoughtful.

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