We ought to update that Disraeli quote: "There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics." Now we have opinion polls. Or rather newspaper treatment of opinion polls that happen to be out of synch with the editorial line.
You can hardly blame the pollsters. They operate scientifically, turning down invitations to lend their well-regarded names to loaded questions. But they do little about loaded interpretations. After all, the data is there for readers to evaluate.
But what if a newspaper omits vital data? Kills key questions? Subs out a qualifying clause?
Take The Mirror. Not the first to distort, disguise or delete an unpalatable poll (the Express once spiked a finding that the Tories would do better without Mrs T) but the most recent. Last week, under the headline, "Nailing euro lies", it thundered:
"No anti-European appears on TV or radio without stating as a fact that the vast majority of British people don’t want the euro. That is the great lieÃ‰ a majority of voters do believe the UK should enter the single currency at the right time. In fact, a new poll reveals that more than 50 per cent think we will be in by 2005"
Now branding opponents as liars (and beginning sentences with "In fact") implies devotion to truth.
The Mirror reported a MORI poll question asking how likely it is that Britain will "regularly use a single European currency and coinage in 2005". But it left out the opening clause of that question, "Whatever your personal view of membership"
Those six words had enabled pragmatic Eurosceptics (and even pathological Europhobes) to answer "Very likely" or "Fairly likely". The Mirror counted them all in as pro-euro.
Its 20-inch news piece standing up the leader had no room for the MORI finding that 55 per cent of the sample were strongly or generally opposed to the euro, against 35 per cent strongly or generally favourable. Nor for the fact that the strongly opposed (31 per cent) dwarfed the strongly favourable (13 per cent).
Also omitted was that only a third of those generally opposed could be persuaded to vote pro-euro even if staying out meant lost jobs. The scores for each of 11 other given reasons were as low as 5 per cent and never above 27 per cent.
Do we have to wait for a poll to tell us if readers (Europhile, Eurosceptic or Euroshrug) are strongly or generally in favour of newspapers telling it like it is, rather than like it isn’t?