‘75% of doctors support 12-week access,’ the most prominent headline on the front page of yesterday’s Irish Examiner read.
The story was written by the Examiner’s well-known Political Editor Daniel McConnell along with their Political Correspondent Fiachra Ó Cionnaith: both of whom are experienced journalists in high-level roles in the national publication.
“Three out of every four GPs and hospital consultants are in favour of allowing unrestricted access to abortion up to 12 weeks gestation, the most substantial survey of medics on the issue to date has found,” the journalists wrote.
The third paragraph contained the most important information, information which has seen this news story undone.
“The survey, to be published in tomorrow’s edition of Ireland’s longest-running medical trade newspaper the Irish Medical Times, asked all readers of the GP and consultant focussed publication if they support or oppose the potential 12-week law due to be introduced if the Eighth Amendment is removed” (emphasis mine).
It does not take a professional journalist to spot the problem here. Readers of the publication and visitors to its website and social media sites were asked, not doctors.
This should have been the first alarm bell.
The Examiner’s intrepid journalistic duo went on to describe how the poll included 383 respondents and they quoted the editor of the Irish Medical Times (IMT) Lloyd Mudiwa, who said that the results “would seem to suggest that at this point in time a significant majority of medical practitioners who participated in our poll support the recommendations of the committee, and that doctors aren’t necessarily more conservative than the general public, at least when it comes to this issue.”
The Irish Medical Times – a minor, niche publication – were satisfied that they had a story, and so they published it. Such is the standing of the IMT that the glaringly obvious flaws in their poll would barely have created a fuss at all, had not the Irish Examiner discovered the story about doctors being overwhelmingly supportive of abortion and splashed it across Page 1.
383 respondents participated in the Irish Medical Times study, a small figure to begin with, if you’re going to justify making your findings a page one lead.
But these 383 respondents could not seriously be described as 383 “GPs and hospital consultants” as the Irish Examiner claimed in its lead-in.
The poll was conducted by the IMT online, with the publication tweeting the question “As a medical practitioner, would you support the introduction of abortion on request up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy?”
Yet that question was addressed to anyone who read it online, not to actual GPs via direct contact, as would take place in a real opinion poll about feelings within the medical profession about the Government’s new policy to have them become abortion providers en masse.
Just as anyone can access the website, anyone with a Twitter account could see the poll on Twitter. This was an opinion poll about the views of IMT readers and followers about abortion, and yet it was presented to the public as an opinion poll about the views of qualified medical practitioners.
Basic journalistic protocol would have resulted in a thorough examination of the methodology of any opinion poll being considered for a front page story. In this case, a very basic online check would have sufficed.
Why did this happen? The answer appears to be that this demonstrably bad story, was in fact a rather good story, for the Repeal campaign at least.
75% of doctors supporting the Government’s proposals would be a good story for the Repeal campaign (if it were true, which it almost certainly isn’t).
It would be a good story for the Health Minister Simon Harris, who wants to make it clear that the Government’s proposals for a GP-led abortion-on-demand system can be implemented without any major opposition from within the sector.
It would be especially useful in the same week as the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP) – which represents over 2,000 Irish GPs – released a statement declaring that its members were “outraged” that they had not been consulted by the Minister, and that the official representative body “strongly objects to the assumption that this will be a GP led service.”
The unusually forthright criticism may well have taken Harris by surprise, and added to concerns about the undeniably radical change to the medical profession’s core purpose which Harris and Varadkar are planning to introduce soon.
This all meant that it was an excellent time for a story to reassure the Irish public that all was well, that the doctors were on-board and that these learned physicians understood why the Eighth Amendment must be repealed.
All that was needed was a story, or perhaps an opinion poll.
The bogus poll would have served a useful purpose by shifting focus away from opposition to the Government’s abortion proposals by doctors and instead framing a new narrative, one in which the support of “three out of every four GPs and hospital consultants” for unrestricted access to abortion would be a key theme.
As the story broke online, journalistic standards broke down across the sector.
The newspaper-of-record The Irish Times is a much more popular, influential and respected outlet than the Examiner, and its news correspondent Ronan McGreevy appeared sceptical of the IMT’s poll findings.
“As an iron rule,” he tweeted in the early hours of Thursday morning, “we never carry polls unless they are based on a proper representative sample of the Irish public.”
Minutes later, The Irish Times reported that a health poll had found that 75% of medical professionals favoured legalised abortion up until 12 weeks.
That bastion of truth and balance in this most difficult and contentious of public debates –TheJournal.ie – also ran with the story.
However, the glaringly obvious holes in this story were pointed out by numerous observers online, and being rumbled, the Irish Medical Times backed down on their claims.
A Google search now leads us to the story on the IMT’s website entitled ‘Majority of doctors in Ireland back abortion up to 12 weeks, IMT poll.’ The link to the page is dead: the story has been removed. They cannot stand over this ‘poll’ and they are not trying to. The Irish Times have also removed the story from their website, as did TheJournal.ie.
Yet the Irish Examiner still have the story on its website, and have even added a self-exculpatory preamble.
“It is not Irish Examiner policy to take down or remove stories from our website but rather to update the story as fresh information emerges,” they state.
“To date, no fresh information has emerged from the Irish Medical Times about their latest survey on abortion attitudes. Any questions about their methodology should be directed to the Irish Medical Times.”
This is an understandable move. Faced with the realisation that on Thursday they placed a bogus opinion poll on the front page, it might be better for the paper and the two journalists who wrote the story to lie low and let this blow over, rather than to endure the humiliation of issuing a formal retraction.
The referendum campaign has not yet begun, and already we are beginning witness the complete abandonment of any pretense of objectivity within our national media, including formerly respectable newspapers. They will likely plumb further depths in the coming months.
On this point, it is worth noting that the same article on the Irish Examiner’s website also includes a claim that a “large Pro-Life Campaign poster saying abortion is akin to child abuse” had been placed outside Leinster House.
The Pro-Life Campaign say that the poster does not belong to them, and that it is considering their legal options in relation to this claim.
Also, and in an entirely unrelated development, the Irish Examiner published another article yesterday, entitled ‘Public trust in traditional journalism on the rise as fears of ‘fake news’ increase.’
Irony is lost on these people, as is integrity too.