David Miller

3 October 2001


Opinion polls since the attack in the US on 11 September show that a slim but consistent majority of British people oppose strikes on Afghanistan. Yet the media have uniformly reported that there is consistent support for war. From the News of the World and the Sun, via the Mirror, the Scotsman, the Economist, the Daily Telegraph and the Times to the Independent, Guardian and Observer, we hear that public opinion is 'solid' (Economist, US edition, 22.9.01), that Britons are 'ready for battle' (Observer, 23.9.01), 'NEARLY eight in 10 Britons support military attacks' (The Mirror)'SCOTS OVERWHELMINGLY BACK A JUST WAR' (The Scotsman, 19.9.01) 'TWO-THIRDS OF BRITONS BACK BLAIR ACTION' (Independent, 24.9.01) '2 in 3 back air strikes' (The Guardian, 18.9.01) The News of the World (16.9.01) reported 'overwhelming' support for bombing under the headline 'ATTACK. ATTACK. ATTACK'. The Telegraph (20.9.01) claimed 'The poll confirmed that there is virtually no support for peace campaigners'. A Guardian leader (18.9.01) claimed 'there is no disputing the bottom line. On this one, Tony Blair is definitely speaking for Britain.'

Is this the same 'hard-left' Guardian which, according to some right wing commentators was acting as an 'apologist' for terror and was 'henceforth better known as the Daily Terrorist' (Andrew Neil)? Well, yes it is. But the misreading of public opinion obtains across the media, including reports by the Press Association (16, 18 and 20.9.01), reproduced (with minimal changes) in national newspapers.

Between 11 September and 24 September seven public opinion polls were conducted by MORI, Gallup, ICM and YouGov. They asked similar but differently worded questions about support for bombing. For example, a MORI poll for the News of the World (16.9.01) asked 'If the United States can identify the groups or nations responsible for this week's attacks, would you support or oppose taking military action against them?' 75% said they would support this (12% opposed). A smaller number have supported 'military action' by the US (67% ICM, The Guardian, 18.9.01). These apparently high levels of support have been used by the media to suggest public backing for Blair and Bush. In practice Western military action does not reliably discriminate between legitimate targets and civilians. Moreover polling companies are guilty of distorting public opinion by asking insufficiently sophisticated questions. The headlines on public support have masked a strong current of opinion against military action which would target anyone but the 'terrorists' or in practice harm civilians. Gallup found that 82% of the British public said military action 'should only be taken after the identity of the perpetrators was clearly established, even if this process took several months to accomplish.' Even in the United States, Gallup found a significant majority (62%) of Americans felt the same. The degree of clarity in this area remains minimal following the successive (broken) promises by the US to reveal conclusive evidence.

A significant difficulty in assessing public opinion is that pollsters may ask questions with little scientific value. A YouGov poll for the Observer (23.9.01) makes the point well. 65% said they Would 'support "surgical air strikes" against countries knowingly harbouring terrorist organisations' with only 22% against. But when the pollsters asked if there was support for "massive air strikes" a majority (60) were opposed. The Observer claimed that this showed that Britons were 'ready for battle', but look again at the wording of the first question. The term 'Surgical strike' is an oxymoron. Dreamt up by the western forces in the Gulf in 1991, it was supposed to presage the era of the 'clean war. Civilians would be protected by 'Smart' weapons technology. But in fact in the Gulf only 7% of the ordnance used was 'smart', 93% being indiscriminate bombs. Further, according to official sources, fully 40% of the smart weapons missed their targets, targets which themselves often contained civilians such as the bomb shelter in Baghdad incinerated by US forces (Kellner, 1992: 163). So to ask whether the public approves of surgical strikes is uncomfortably close to propaganda.

The reluctance of the public to support the inevitable civilian deaths is emphasised in the data not printed on the front pages, but available on media and polling websites. Of the seven polls taken so far five have asked questions about civilian casualties. With one partial exception, they have all shown a majority opposed to strikes

Support for strikes which cause civilian casualties

Publication date









ICM Scotland
















The second Gallup poll was anomalous in that another question in the same poll found that fully 82% of British respondents agreed that the US should take military action 'only against the terrorist organisations responsible… even if it takes months to clearly identify them.' In summary there is majority support, (albeit mostly slim) for the position enunciated by International Development Secretary Clare Short and then quickly disavowed by No 10.

More widely, public opinion is at odds with media cheerleading. In the YouGov poll a majority (53%) did not blame Islam, but Islamic terrorism (90%) for the 'current crisis'. More awkwardly for the government a majority also blame Israel (a little or a lot - 53%) and the US (62%), whereas 63% don't blame Britain at all. Fully 70% agreed (a little or a lot) that 'in the past, the United States has been far too arrogant and selfish in the way it has treated the world's poorest countries'. None of these responses has made it into the press.

Opinion in Britain and the US is more complex than is being suggested in the press, but globally there is no evidence of support for war. As only the conservative tabloid the Daily Mail (22.9.01) has reported 'International public opinion opposes a massive U.S. military strike to retaliate for last week's terrorist attacks, according to a Gallup poll in 31 countries. Only in Israel and the United States did a majority favour a military response against states shown to harbour terrorists'.

One problem is that the drip-drip of apparent support may make advocates of peace or those worried about civilian casualities less confident in expressing their opinions. A second is that broadcast journalists will also be misled about the real state of public opinion. According to James Naughtie of BBC Radio 4's flagship Today programme 'This is not a war which is likely to split the country down the middle. It's not like Suez, Vietnam, or even the Falklands where a substantial section of public opinion thought the war was wrong… There is a lot of consensus, I think, about this engagement' (Sunday Herald 23.9.01) Naughtie is simply wrong about this, but it is the effect of such misjudgements on how they cover the build-up to war that is most worrying. John Pilger, Philip Knightly and others have already formed a Media Workers against the War group (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4263531,00.html) and written to the Guardian to complain about the pro war rhetoric of the mainstream media including television. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4262433,00.html http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4263343,00.html)

But is there not an argument for cautious words in the build up to war? Strangely, given the assault on the Guardian and Observer, the Observer's own opinion poll contained an ace which they kept up their sleeve buried at the end of their report. One question asked whether 'critics of the US should voice their opposition or stay silent over the next few weeks?'. A massive 70% agreed that criticism of the US should be voiced. There is a sceptical and critical public out there. Despite the reporting of polls and the attack on criticism, there is precious little evidence, so far, that they support this war.


Kellner, D. (1992) The Persian Gulf TV War, Boulder CO: Westview Press.

Opinion poll data websites

Gallup International, 19.9.01


Gallup for the Daily Telegraph, 20.9.01



ICM for The Guardian, 18.9.01:


ICM for The Scotsman, 19.9.01:


MORI for the News of the World, 16.9.01:


MORI for the News of the World, 23.9.01


YouGov for The Observer, 23.9.01: