Update: 11/09/10 - The BBC has repeated the inaccurate assertions made in another news story regarding funding cuts [here].
Did anything good ever come out of a survey? Politics, shopping, film, television, etc are all surveyed to oblivion but can a series of questions directed at a random number of people ever truly reflect a consensus of public opinion with any accuracy?
On September 2nd the BBC posted a news story on its website, hidden away in the Entertainment/Arts section, that made the following claim;
"Two-thirds of people agree with the government's stance on cutting arts funding and increasing reliance on private cash, a survey has suggested."
Digging deeper into the story, by reading it, you learn that actually 2,022 people were being asked questions about visual art and not the arts in general so straight off the bat the BBC piece is off balance by a country mile.
They almost reel it back in again with this;
"The Threadneedle Prize-commissioned survey found that 66% of respondents agreed that the majority of visual arts funding should come from corporate sponsorship and private donations"
BBC News then digs itself further into a hole by stating that the Department for Culture Media and Sport will abolish The Film Council, which is true, but they fail to mention that the money they distribute is not being taken away. (Don't even get us started on that one)
The survey was commissioned by the Threadneedle Prize run by the Mall Galleries in South West London. Both the prize and the gallery are funded entirely through non-public sources although they do have applications under consideration from various public programmes.
Surveys and polls are used, often erroneously, by press hacks to prove or disprove a specific point and the BBC is doing a fine job of that with this particular piece.
The reality is however that all they do is prove or disprove a particular point among the people who were asked the survey questions, even if the survey is conducted in a scientific manner.
For example; The BBC fails to explain why, if the majority are opposed to visual arts funding from government sources, so many millions of people attend publicly funded art galleries all over the UK. They also fail to ask a single publicly funded visual arts organisation to provide an opposing point of view.
Even the controversial and much derided 'Turner Prize' run by Tate Modern in London, attracts some 60-70,000 visitors and you have to buy a ticket to get in. That's on top of the 4-5 million visitors per annum the Tate Modern quoted to us when we asked them about visitor numbers.
Tate Modern is funded by the DCMS.
The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in the bitter north has 400,000 visitors (give or take) per annum to look at work that even the people who run the gallery would struggle to call "accessible".
Baltic Mill is funded by Arts Council England (ACE) and numerous other public bodies.
Following a brief discussion with Lewis McNaught, the director of Mall Galleries, it became clear that the purpose of the survey was gathering public opinion about funding of visual art specifically or, more precisely, public funding of "figurative art".
In the press release for the survey the Threadneedle Prize makes the following claim;
"61% of people answered that they preferred figurative art to conceptual art."
The problem is there is no such question in the survey itself. None of the questions uses the phrase "figurative art" and the word "conceptual" doesn't make an appearance either.
Another problem question relating to ACE is this one;
"On the basis of what you know, are you happy with the way the Arts Council spends your money?"
The survey concluded from this question that 60% of respondents had no idea how ACE spends public money.
Mr McNaught agreed with the suggestion that many people may be unaware that a specific gallery or artist is funded by ACE or any other public funding source. In fact the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, mentioned above, one of the UK's largest galleries, is breaching its funding agreement with ACE by not displaying their logo prominently on the homepage of their website or anywhere else.
You could also question whether or not people actually know what ACE is and whether or not they know the funding monolith distributes public money, even if they did see the logo.
At the time of writing no one was available from the Baltic to comment on that issue.
Mr McNaught also expressed a desire to conduct more detailed research into public attitudes towards the funding of visual art.
Ultimately the problem with this story is some pretty clumsy reporting by the BBC. Although there are some issues with the phrasing of the questions in the survey itself and the conclusions reached.
When a news organisation with the size, importance and reach of the BBC misrepresents information in this way that misrepresentation becomes the sound bite for those seeking to make mischief.
More often than not the full story never gets repeated just the attention grabbing "Two-thirds of people agree with the government's stance on cutting arts funding...".
As outlined above, that claim is demonstrably false and respected news sources should try much harder to introduce balance and accuracy in their news reports. In fact, we're pretty sure it's either accurate and balanced or the writer in question should be shown the door.
Many a wag will tell you that "A lie can make it around the world before the truth has its shoes on." Perhaps we should have that phrase tattooed on the forehead of the BBC News website's editors.