An article on the front page of the Daily Telegraph exaggerates how much the public disapproves of disruptive protests. An online version of the article is more accurate, but still slightly misleading.
The story comes from a new report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS), which examined the way that protests are being policed.
One section of the report measures public opinion about the impact of protests, using a YouGov survey of 2,033 adults in England and Wales from November 2020.
According to the Telegraph’s print article, the HMICFRS report said that “police had ‘too readily’ tipped the balance in favour of the human rights of demonstrators during [Extinction Rebellion] and Black Lives Matter protests, against those of residents and businesses”, and that this “put them out of kilter with the public, who felt—by a ratio of five to one—that such disruption from protests was ‘completely unacceptable’.”
The Telegraph told Full Fact that it based this claim on Figures 2 and 3 in the report, which focus on serious disruption to residents and businesses—but the ratio it used is a misleading way to represent the data in those charts. The tables show six different responses: “completely acceptable”, “fairly acceptable”, “neither acceptable nor unacceptable”, “fairly unacceptable”, “completely unacceptable”, and “don’t know”.
About 50% of people said that serious disruption to residents and businesses was “completely unacceptable”, compared with about 10% who said it was “completely acceptable”. However, it is misleading to represent overall public opinion as a balance between only those people who gave “completely” answers.
It is true that public opinion in this survey was heavily against any protesters who cause serious disruption to residents or businesses. However, if we combine the answers from people who said that serious disruption was either completely or fairly acceptable/unacceptable, the balance of opinion is more like three to one.
The wording of this particular question is important too. It only asks what people think about protesters “causing serious disruption”. The online version of the Telegraph article is written slightly differently, saying the survey asked about “residents and businesses hit by serious disruption.” The print article does not say whether the disruption in the question was “serious” or not.
This is important because the same survey says that public opinion is more evenly divided when it comes to less serious disruption. When asked what they think of protesters causing “a minor inconvenience to people locally”, a combined total of about 45% found it unacceptable compared with about 33% who found it acceptable.
The Telegraph was right to say that the public finds serious disruption from protests unacceptable. However, it exaggerated the extent of public disapproval, especially in its front page article.
Describing its own findings, the HMICFRS says: “More than two thirds of people thought it was unacceptable for protests to involve violence or serious disruption to residents and businesses.
“However, the public’s views were more divided when protest caused only minor inconvenience to people locally, with little support for police use of force when protesters were not violent.”
The Telegraph journalist who wrote the article told us: "There is no error. The facts stand as they are stated. The only nuance is whether the serious disruption should have been in the second par of the print edition but it was still, nonetheless, in the piece."
In our view, the print article was misleading, for the reasons explained above.
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