BBC misrepresents National Social Survey

The BBC’s coverage of the National Social Survey shows the BBC at its very worst. It has completely misrepresented the survey to promote its own political worldview that we are becoming more selfish and less concerned about others. The headline it uses on the front page of its website is: “UK less willing to help others”. I have just read the survey and, in 227 pages, I cannot find any reference to whether people are less willing to help others.

It would seem that what the BBC means is that we are less willing to pay taxes for redistribution and public services. This could be for one of several reasons:

1.       With government spending over half of national income, people wish to rebalance their spending away from collectively provided goods and redistribution.

2.       With government spending over half of national income and income inequality widening, people believe that more government spending is not the answer.

3.       People wish the government to spend less but wish to help others more through their personal initiative.

4.       People believe that the less-well-off are responsible for their own problems to a greater extent.

5.       People are more selfish.

In fact, there is no evidence in the report, whatsoever – as far as I can see – for proposition 5, which the BBC suggests is the case. There is a lot of evidence that people are motivated in their answers by 2 and 4 and possibly 1. Issues to do with 3 (and 5) are simply not covered.

Page 36 of the report (table A.1) does , indeed, suggest that fewer people over time wish to pay more taxes for public services and redistribution – this is not surprising given how far taxes have risen and does not at all indicate that people are less willing to help others. Indeed, the answer to this question does not even demonstrate that people are less willing to pay high taxes now than ten years ago, given that the question is being asked at a time when taxes are much higher than they were then.

The explanation is possibly provided by table A.2. Fewer people believe that current benefit levels cause hardship and more people believe that benefit levels discourage people from finding jobs. So, there we have it, it is quite clear that the people surveyed actually believe that increased benefits do not help people. It is not that people do not want to help, it is that people believe that benefits do not provide that help. Perhaps people have a more realistic view of the problems in the benefits system than the BBC news editors.

Exactly the same issues arise with the question of whether people are willing to pay more taxes for the sake of the environment. The proportion who are willing to do so has fallen by between a third and a half (depending on the group of respondents) but, interestingly, the proportion who are willing to accept a cut in their standard of living to help the environment has fallen by only a quarter. There would seem to be one logical explanation here. Firstly, people believe that taxes are relatively less effective in terms of the ability to help the environment, as compared with other measures, than they used to believe. Secondly, if people have made more sacrifices (in terms of both higher taxes and cuts in living standards) over the last ten years, more people are likely to believe that they have made the “optimal” degree of sacrifice and would not wish to make further sacrifices.

However, maybe we should not try too hard to produce strictly logical interpretations of these surveys. The questions on education produce some interesting material. Only eight per cent of respondents believe that parents should not have the basic right to choose their children’s school, yet 85 per cent believe that parents should send their children to the nearest state school! Interestingly, the survey commentary suggests that the middle class might be more in favour of school choice because the research they cite suggests that the middle class gain most from school choice. In fact, where proper school choice exists (rather than limited options being provided amongst state schools) the evidence strongly suggests that it is the less-well-off who gain most.

This is no excuse, though, for the BBC leading its coverage by using a headline that reflects its prejudices but that relates to an issue that is not addressed in the survey. Rowan Williams, having seen the BBC coverage, will now be off like a rocket as he seeks to pontificate about how capitalism is making us more selfish.



The Fabian Society did the same thing a while ago, using the British Social Attitude Survey to show that people have become more 'hard-nosed' about the poor and the unemployed. They blamed the media, for writing too much about welfare fraud. But what the BSA really showed was that support for higher unemployment benefits was lower in the mid-2000s than in the mid-1980s. A weird comparison, because it obviously makes a difference whether unemployment is around 10% or around 5%.
Interesting, Philip, that you state it shows the BBC at its worst. Personally, I see this this as standard, par-for-the-course reporting. Just as the eurozone crisis rages all around us, the BBC talk about Britain being left in the "slow-lane", as if the best place to be is in the eurozone!! If Cameron has any balls (which is hardly likely), he will make the "slow-lane" look positively inviting. Better still, he should start the ball rolling for Britain to re-acquire our sovereigny given away immorally and unethically by previous generations of "political elites" (is that an oxymoron, like Australian Culture?) by the same invidious and insidious way that the EU has grown. By the way, if an elite is something that floats to the top, like cream, which is the implication, I happened to have worked for a Water and Waste Utility for 17 years and you should see what else floats to the top in one of their sewage works.
Good point, Don. In fact, it continued. I was on Jeremy Vine yesterday and the debate was around whether, in time of great stagnation, we should look upon unemployed people as lazy as, it was suggested, increasing numbers of people were doing. Exactly the same issues were discussed on "'Thought' for the day" this morning. I pointed out on Jeremy Vine - though could not do so, of course on "'Thought' for the day" that the figures released yesterday were for 2009, that the increase in the "laziness" accusation took place between 1994 and 2003 and, in fact, the number thinking that way had actually declined since 2003! Of course, one can always invent some facts if the real ones do not match the theory.

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