[Lead Image: thePipeLine]
Opinion polling is a commercial business and anyone with a project, especially a project in the PR doldrums, can pay a polling company to conduct an opinion poll and hang a positive press release on the result. That truism of the dark arts of public relations is on display in London this evening as the beleaguered Garden Bridge Trust, and its figurehead, Boris Johnson’s babysitter and National Treasure, Joanna Lumley, took advantage of a slow news day in the summer silly season, to issue the results of a tame opinion poll undertaken by Comres on behalf of the Trust. As a bonus the Trust also gained the editorial support of the London evening paper, the Standard, for the controversial proposal to link Temple station and the South Bank with what critics see as a pair of giant pedestrianised planters. However, as the media and people of Great Britain found out on the morning after the General Election in May, there are lies, damned lies and there are opinion polls. The problem with polls is do people actually believe them anymore?
On the face of it the headline figures of the Comres Poll commissioned by the Garden Bridge Trust are impressive. Over three quarters of residents in Westminster and Lambeth (77%), say that they support the proposal for a Garden Bridge. A figure which rises to 78% when the figure is extrapolated to London as a whole. Among the young people (18-24) of Westminster and Lambeth this level of support rises to almost North Korean Election levels with a claimed 86% wanting to see the bridge built. No wonder that Bee Emmott, the Garden Bridge Trust Chief Executive, was cautiously delighted stating in the Press Release which revealed the data and which effectively wrote the Standard article and editorial,
“It is very encouraging to see high levels of support across London for such an innovative project which will improve the environment for Londoners. Local residents of Lambeth and Westminster and Londoners in general can see the benefits of a pedestrian footbridge with green space which will become a much loved London landmark.”
However, if you dig down into the data tables and you don’t have to dig very far so thin is the data this story is based on , you discover the sample of 1,003 adults living in Westminster & Lambeth and the 1,034 adults in other parts of London who were surveyed online, were only asked one question about Ms Lumley and Thomas Heatherwick’s planters project [thePipeLine’s Italics].
“The ‘Garden Bridge’ is a proposed pedestrian footbridge over the River Thames, from the top of Temple underground station on the North Bank to the South Bank, which will include gardens and trees. To what extent do you support or oppose this proposal for a ‘Garden Bridge’?
Respondents were not asked “Do you support Boris Johnson and George Osborne gifting £60 million of public money to the private Garden Bridge Trust?” “Do you support the Garden Bridge being closed at least twelve days per year for private corporate events?” or “Should the Garden Bridge be closed over night?” While at least in a political opinion poll there you are offered alternatives; Conservative or Labour; Burnham, Cooper, Corbyn or Kendall; even the eight surviving Liberal Democrat MP’s had a choice in their Leadership race. However, here there was no question exploring the opinion of Londoners regarding whether the money would be better spent on other parts of the capital’s transport infrastructure and amenities.
As respondent Dr Pepper posted on the Standard website
“I’m a Lambeth resident, though not one of the few lucky ones selected to get a telephone interview on this project; and I’d far rather TfL spent the money on something practical and useful. How about repairing some of the neglected and horrendously cratered/potholed roads in central London which are both a danger to cyclists and damaging to motor vehicles? How about some air-con on the tube, which in this day and age it’s unbelievable they haven’t installed yet?”
Indeed, in a genuinely rounded survey there is also a case for asking whether Londoners would support their money being spent on London’s existing parks and gardens which are wilting in the face of a succession of cuts, or even the internationally important repository of Kew Gardens which has also seen severe funding cuts and job losses.
The fundamental PR nature of this “opinion poll” is demonstrated by the second question in the survey where respondents were asked an apparently innocuous and unconnected question about a generic new footbridge.
“If there was to be a new pedestrian footbridge built in your area of London/Central London, which of the following do you think are the top three most important things for that bridge to have?”
With stunning predictability the answers to this question revealed that wheelchair access was seen to be the most important feature for a new footbridge (46%), followed by the “pedestrian paths” (41%) and “links with the rest of the transport network” (40%). However, although the question was not even about the Garden Bridge, by the time this data appeared in the Garden Bridge Trust Press Release, and through the press release in the pages of the Standard, it had been spun to support the case for the Bridge.
“Access for wheelchair users is seen as the most important feature for a new footbridge in central London by Londoners in general (46%) and those in Westminster and Lambeth specifically (59%). The Garden Bridge will be fully accessible. There is step-free access from both landings, across the bridge and to all of the internal gardens, balconies and staff facilities. This includes wheelchair accessible routes and public toilet facilities.”
thePipeLine is forced to point out, as does the Government in this quote from an official guidance document, that “Part III of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) gives disabled people a right of access to goods, facilities, services and premises” [thePipeLine’s italics]. In other words the Garden Bridge Trust is not allowed to design a bridge which is not accessible. Thus to pretend the Trust is surfing the wave of public demand by making the bridge accessible is disingenuous to say the least. Of course, uninvited wheelchair users and people with disabilities, along with everyone else who is not on the guest list, will be barred from the bridge during the regular corporate bun fights and overnight. No discrimination there…
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with tame opinion polls such as the poll commissioned by the Garden Bridge Trust, so long as the data is treated as advertising and presented by the rest of the media with an appropriate journalistic skepticism. On 28 July the prestigious Architects Journal ran an article by Ian Ritchie entitled
“What problem does the Garden Bridge solve?’
“Ian Ritchie takes a forensic look at why Thomas Heatherwick’s controversial Garden Bridge proposal is the wrong project for London”
That is probably more informative than any soft ball opinion poll and would probably have aided the interpretation and analysis of the Garden Bridge Trust’s press release. Indeed, the churnalists* at the Standard should probably have read it before penning the paper’s supine editorial endorsement, which pays no attention to the important issues of governance and appropriate use of public money by two of our most high profile politicians Mr Johnson and Mr Osborne, which the Garden Bridge controversy has provoked. It is just a shame the article is hidden behind a paywall. We must assume the Standard does not have the money for a subscription so the newsroom could not read it. Well someone has to pay for “London Live”. Of course there is plenty of other critical material in the media which is not hidden behind paywalls. Not that you would know it from the Standard.
*Churnalism: A term coined by BBC Journalist Waseem Zakir and popularised by Nick Davies in “Flat Earth News” which describes the uncritical recycling of press releases as news.