If the facts don’t fit, change the facts

It’s hardly a revelation that the Daily Telegraph is an enthusiastic cheerleader for Brexit, and Boris Johnson.

And you would of course expect the Telegraph to put the best possible spin on anything Brexit-related.

But its treatment of a new opinion poll sets a new low for a supposedly serious newspaper, apparently comfortable with misleading its readers.


On its front page, the Telegraph tells us the “public backs Johnson to shut down Parliament for Brexit”.

“Boris Johnson has the support of more than half of the public to deliver Brexit by any means, including suspending Parliament.”

Firstly, that’s not exactly what respondents to the poll were asked. They were asked if parliament should be suspended “if necessary”, a caveat left out of the Telegraph’s hyperbolic headline.

Secondly, and far more seriously, it is false to suggest that “more than half” of those questioned backed suspending Parliament.

In fact, it was 44%. 37% oppose it, and crucially 19% — close to one-in-five of those asked — were unsure and chose “don’t know”.

To achieve the false 54% figure quoted in the Telegraph, the don’t knows were removed, and the figures recalculated.

But the claim at the heart of the Telegraph’s story — “more than half” of people back suspending Parliament — is untrue. And it’s hard to imagine adults working in national newspaper journalism would not have realised it was untrue.

It’s not as if it isn’t a big enough story that 44% of voters would support suspending the democratic process to allow a government to force through a measure it knows it can’t get through by any other means.

But the Telegraph wanted that “more than half” line — so the facts were altered to fit the desired narrative.

Of course you could reasonably reply that everyone knows the Telegraph loves both Brexit and Boris Johnson. So does this really matter?

what is a newspaper for?

There’s a big difference between choosing an interpretation of facts most helpful to your world view, and passing off false information as fact in support of that view.

The former is what newspapers do. The latter is supposed to be the preserve of online trolls in Vladivostok, or Donald Trump’s spokesperson.

If a front-page lead in a serious newspaper can be shown to be gibberish in just a few minutes, why would you trust tomorrow’s Telegraph lead? Or the day after?

The Telegraph has every right to campaign fiercely for a no-deal Brexit, to be Boris Johnson’s most loyal cheerleader.

But it might be worth hanging on to the tiniest shred of credibility if it wants to be believed in the future.