As horses and hounds gathered across the country on Boxing Day, more than a quarter of a million people turned out on foot and on horseback to support their local hunts. But this year, alongside the traditional images of red-coated huntsmen and their steeds, many of the national media quoted the statistic that 80 per cent of the British public would like fox hunting to remain illegal. Can we really take that statistic at face value, though?
This latest figure came from research carried out by Ipsos MORI, a reputable market research company whose data is generally seen as trustworthy. The poll on hunting, which was carried out on behalf of the League Against Cruel Sports (LACS), the RSPCA and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, asked 2,000 people the following question:
“Now a question about sports where animals are set on other animals to fight or kill them. These activities are currently illegal in the United Kingdom. For each one I read out, please tell me whether you think it should or should not be made legal again. Just read out the letter that applies in each case.
Fox Hunting; Deer Hunting; Hare Hunting and Coursing; Dog fighting; Badger baiting.
– Yes, should be made legal again
– No, should not be made legal again
– Don’t Know”
The order in which the ‘sports’ were read out was rotated, meaning that fox hunting could easily have appeared between badger baiting and dog fighting. Is that a fair representation of hunting with hounds? The LACS would probably argue that it is. And the Countryside Alliance, unsurprisingly, disagree.
Of course it’s true that many people don’t agree with the Countryside Alliance that the hunting ban ought to be repealed. But a poll commissioned by the BBC from MORI in 2005 found that just 47% of those questioned supported the ban. Opinions do change – but it does seem like a fairly dramatic shift in just a few years.
As the controversy over the wording of the question on the ballot paper on Scottish independence showed, phrasing can easily influence results. The wording of this hunting poll is almost identical to that of previous years, which has been subject to complaints from Labour and Lib Dem politicians, but to no avail.
Sir Robert Worcester, who founded MORI and is currently a Senior Advisor for Ipsos MORI, has expressed opposition to hunting in the past and in 2009 said that David Cameron would be ‘mad’ to repeal the act. Some might question the appropriateness of such a person saying such a thing given the importance of polling companies being seen to be objective and non-partisan.
Controversial subjects such as hunting will always stir up animosity between the different sides of the argument. But surely the one thing that we ought to expect from a polling company is an accurate representation of public opinion – whatever that opinion may be. It’s important that questions posed on such subjects should not give rise to a perception that that they may have been loaded.