Today and the Hunting ban repeal vote
Being a behind-the-scenes veteran of several BBC Today programme online votes, I've been watching with interest from the continent as the saga of this year's vote has unfolded. For those not in the know, listeners voted overwhelmingly to repeal the law that attempts to ban hunting with hounds, and on air the programme suggested there was something "suspicious" about the outcome.
Even paragon of virtue Ann Widdecombe was quoted as suggesting "We did hesitate on the panel to put this one forward because there was already evidence of links from the Countryside Alliance. And of course we had the Boxing Day meets, when just about everybody who actively supports hunting would have been out and could have been reminded". Having just seen her the other day as guest host of HIGNFY, I credit her with a bit more of a mischevious sense of humour than I would have had done hitherto.
There was quite some glee in the headlines written in some of the British print press and online about the vote and the embarrassment it had caused - "Red faces as the BBC is outfoxed in listeners' poll" in The Times for example. My favourite was "Hunt vote bewilders BBC" in DælNet with this coverage:
Listeners were asked to vote for the parliamentary act that they would most like to see repealed and of the thousands who voted, a massive 53% demanded the scrapping of the Hunting Act, which made fox hunting illegal two years ago.
The next most unpopular Act, which took Britain into the Common Market in 1972, attracted just under 30%, a result which clearly embarrassed Today presenters, for the programme has long been accused of being politically correct and focussed mainly on London-based stories.
What made me smile was that it seemed that the Today editorial team had got themselves into a no-win situation with this poll - I couldn't see which of the acts that were nominated for repeal could avoid negative publicity or people poking fun at the Beeb were they to win.
Just look at the options:
The Hunting Act (52.8%)? Well we've seen that it isn't just the idea that the vote was influenced, as the idea that the urban elitist BBC is out of touch with the countryside if it doesn't understand how unpopular this legislation has been.
The European Communities Act (29.7%)? Well, that would have been embarrassing for the BBC which is notorious amongst Eurosceptics for their pro-EU socialist bias when covering EU issues.
Repeal the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (6.2%)? Obviously only a limp-wristed Guardian-reading pinko liberal employed in Broadcasting House would want to go soft on crime and soft on the causes of crime. Especially if the crime is wanting to stage a peaceful protest in sight of the Houses of Parliament.
Human Rights Act (6.1%)? Again, it is surely only commies like the Beeb who are happy to put the rights of criminals above the rights of the law-abiding British citizen, and anyway it wouldn't be politically correct to repeal this legislation that protects terrorist apologists from deportation and prevents the police from issuing wanted photographs.
The Act of Settlement (3.6%)? I'm sure the tabloid press would have had a field day with BBC listeners voting to tamper with the sacrosanct constitutional position of the monarchy, even if depriving Catholics of the throne appears to contradict the aforementioned Human Rights Act. And the tabloids don't often mention that the institution of royalty isn't so traditional that they can't change their name at the drop of a hat to be more populist.
Dangerous Dogs Act (1.6%)? Until a couple of days ago this looked like the only safe option for the programme, and I remember at the time the legislation being a tabloid-driven dogs breakfast of a law that most people wanted abolished within weeks of it hitting the statute books. But imagine the furore if just days before the widely publicised savaging of Ellie Lawrenson by an evil pit bull, the BBC had been seen to be behind moves to water-down the legislation. After all, how many more children does Ed Stourton actually want to see murdered by dogs?
But I digress.
I thought it was a little unsporting of the BBC to cast doubt on the result on air, although not as unsporting as it is IMHO to chase to death a fox with a pack of hounds. There is nothing in the BBC Editorial Guidelines against people lobbying via the internet, or other means, for people to vote in a certain way. During my time at the BBC I had several discussions with the BBC's central Editorial Policy unit on exactly this issue, and we always concluded that, in election parlance, "getting the vote out" was part of the fun. As I know from experience, if the BBC really thinks a vote has been tampered with, they pull it - whether it is as trivial as a football award, or on a serious topic like the holocaust.
The Wayback machine for some reason seems to have stopped archiving the Countryside Alliance site in May 2006, so I can't see the extent to which they were promoting the vote from their homepage, although I did find this blog post about the vote from 14th December. There doesn't seem anything wrong at all to me in what was written here.
(Incidentally in the same article the value-for-money statistic equating keeping rural post offices running with the cost of running 75 John Prescotts made me laugh out loud)
I did think, though, that it was also a little rich of Simon Hart from the Countryside Alliance to spout the line "Claims of vote rigging are, however, nothing but sour grapes. The vote was limited to one vote per person", when like anyone else with an ounce of common sense, he must know that with a joint telephone and internet vote it isn't possible to link a vote cast via a phone number with a vote cast online to the same person. Nor is it necessarily possible to associate a work or public computer with a home computer.
And I can't help thinking the League Against Cruel Sports missed a trick with their campaign. They wrote:
We at the League feel that the BBC is failing in its duty to prevent the manipulation of this vote by a group well renowned for ignoring the democratic processes of this country. The League would ask supporters of the Act to register their concerns to the BBC about the Today Programme being used as a lobbying vehicle for the pro-hunters. You can do this by clicking on this link.
The link in question was to the BBC's complaints site. They probably would have got more joy by urging their supporters to vote for the repeal of any of the other laws rather than the hunting act, to at least massage the percentages down in their favour.
Today editor Ceri Thomas wrote about the vote on the BBC Editor's blog, with the line that it was just a piece of festive fun, and that if everybody takes it too seriously it gets spoiled - as in 1996 when a pre-election fervour from the Labour party to get Blair named man of the year caused the vote to be abandoned. That must have been real old-fashioned proper vote-rigging, given that it took place before the widespread adoption of the internet in the UK. In fact, I'm not even sure if you could vote for Tony Blair online or via email in the Today programme's 1996 vote.
One of the comments on Ceri's post cited the disclaimer used by Slashdot on their polls:
This whole thing is wildly inaccurate. Rounding errors, ballot stuffers, dynamic IPs, firewalls. If you're using these numbers to do anything important, you're insane.
How I wish I'd had the ability to get the BBC to adopt that as their standard disclaimer for run-of-the-mill online only votes during my time running and developing online voting applications there.