(Note: this is not a story about BBC bias, but more how journalists can get caught up amongst the bias propagated by others)

This tweet by the BBC’s political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg caught my eye the other day – retweeted more than 3000 times, so it was all over my timeline:

Also note Laura’s Twitter bio – “140 characters don’t tell a whole story, retweets not my own or BBC’s view” it says. But I presume her own tweets are?

But back to the issue: what is the average age of members of the Conservative Party?

The Bow Group put out this statement during the Conservatives’ Party Conference last week claiming the average age of Tory members is 72. This was then covered by everyone from the respectable FT to the more questionable Evolve Politics. And I assume it is the root of Kuenssberg’s tweet.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, the Bow Group is not some impartial research organisation – it is a pressure group within the Tory Party that has Norman Tebitt as its President, and John Redwood as a Patron (list of key people here), and backed Leave in the referendum. There is no record on The Bow Group’s website about how the organisation is funded. Secondly, there is no explanation of how the group actually calculated the 72 figure.

So I set about finding out how they came up with 72. It turns out that some of my political scientist friends on Facebook were debating it, and that Prof Tim Bale at QMUL knows a lot about this issue – he’s behind a ESRC project on party membership. He even wrote a letter to the FT pointing out that the 72 number was questionable. I asked him about it on Twitter:

In short: the Tory Party membership is old, but we do not actually know how old, and there are good reasons to not trust the 72 figure.

So, in the end, should Kuenssberg have tweeted that one liner about the age of Tory Party members? No. Was she setting out to deceive, or was this in some way fake news? Also no. But now the idea that the average age of Tory members being over 70 is lodged in people’s minds, when the reality is actually a lot more complicated.

We’d all do well to be a little more careful before we tweet out what we’ve just heard.

[UPDATE 9.10.2017, 2000]
So the Chairman of the Bow Group Ben Harris-Quinney has tweeted me about all of this:

This is quite an extraordinary reply, because the story in The Sun he mentions also does not state the source of the 72 years of age stat, and on The Bow Group’s own page it says “the rightwing Bow Group think-tank estimated the average age of a Conservative member is 72”. Well, no, Harris-Quinney’s tweet now basically says The Sun had the stat first. So did The Bow Group just copy it from them? He then followed up with this:

This whole thing does not leave The Bow Group in a good light. Some tweets [1, 2, 3] by Jonathan Stanley do not help either.

(Oh, and Ben, just in case you think you ought to delete the tweets, I have screenshots. You’re welcome.)

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