Opinion doesn't count any more

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2012, 12:00am


Reputation is everything in the opinion polling business. Baptist University has lost whatever esteem it had with its flawed survey on public sentiment towards chief executive candidates Leung Chun-ying and Henry Tang Ying-yen. Professor Zhao Xinshu, the dean of its school of communications and director of its fledgling research centre, has sensibly resigned from the posts, citing misjudgment. The sensitivities of politics in Hong Kong demand that such a decision be made. Until the centre's house is in order - and certainly not before the Election Committee makes its choice - all thought of resuming its work has to be abandoned.

There is every reason this should be so. The manner in which the poll was conducted raised questions about independence and impartiality, factors crucial to producing results that can be trusted. The preliminary release of partial results raised doubts as to whether this was the case and the university promptly assembled an investigative panel. But even this has been done wrong - the findings were rushed out after just a week, with key questions unanswered.

Such haste is troubling. With Hong Kong's people frozen out of the selection and voting process for their leader, opinion polls are a good way to make views known to the 1,200-strong, hand-picked committee. That significance requires that the best polling methods are used. Bias has to be absent at every stage, with the questions carefully chosen and worded, participants truly representative of the voting community, the best possible interview conditions and a good-sized sample.

Doubts abound despite the inquiry. We still do not know why preliminary results were rushed out based on 836 interviews rather than waiting for the official release with 1,000 respondents; Zhao's explanation that it was to avoid media coverage being swamped by the Taiwan election is unconvincing. How Tang's campaign communications director knew of the results hours before their official release and how they came to be published beforehand by a popular newspaper are matters of grave concern. Amid an outcry from staff, students and alumni, the professor wondered whether his being from the mainland meant he should have handled the poll more sensitively.

Questions remain over the political affiliations of the panel's members, how thorough their work was and what would seem a lack of interest in talking to people off campus who were involved.

Reputation is hard won, but easily lost. Graduates and students of Baptist University's communications school, journalists among them, obviously want matters put right. Zhao's replacement has to be carefully chosen through an open and transparent process. Until all questions have been answered and doubts erased, no attempt should be made to resume opinion polling.