Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Not Believing A Word They Say News

It's a wonder we even got this far

Did anyone ever trust politicians? Probably not. But when it comes to systematic deceit, this rotten corrupt government really has plumbed the depths.

Perhaps most damagingly, it has undermined our trust in official government statistics: the essential cockpit instruments we rely on to know where we are.

As we've blogged before, more than 80% of us now believe official stats are routinely manipulated to favour the government line.

So in a desperate bid to manipulate us back into line, last April Fool's Day (yup), the government ceded overall reponsibility for our National Statistics to a new UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), under the chairmanship of Sir Michael Scholar (see this blog). Like the National Audit Office, the UKSA reports not to ministers but to Parliament, which supposedly guarantees its independence (er yes, that is "Parliament", as in whipped lobby fodder Micky Martin Parliament).

Fortunately for us ordinary punters, redoubtable old-time mandarin Sir Michael has shown a marked unwillingness to be anyone's patsy. And yesterday he underlined his independence in a slew of UKSA publications reporting on how things are going.

A new Code of Practice sets out for the first time a set of principles and protocols government stats must comply with if they are to be designated as kosher National Statistics. It is effectively a charge sheet against this government's entire approach to statistical news management. Consider just some of what he wants, and ask why he wants it:

  • "Release statistical reports as soon as they are judged ready, so that there is no opportunity, or perception of opportunity, for the release to be withheld or delayed" - ie as things stand, government departments routinely withold awkward releases until they have prepared their cover story, or until it's 5pm on Christmas Eve.
  • "Publish a timetable of statistical releases for twelve months ahead" - ie as things stand, awkward stats can appear on a day of ministers' choosing, ideally when people's attention is distracted elsewhere
  • "Issue statistical releases at the standard time of 9.30am on a weekday, to maintain consistency and to permit time for users to understand and respond to the information during normal working hours" - ie at present, ministers can release awkward stats at going home time on Friday
  • "Limit access before public release to those people essential for production and publication, and for quality assurance and operational purposes. Publish records of those who have access prior to release." - ie ministers have access to stats well before anyone else and use the time to prepare their spin.
  • "Ensure that no indication of the substance of a statistical report is made public, or given to the media or any other party not recorded as eligible for access before publication. Report to the National Statistician immediately any accidental or wrongful release, and investigate the circumstances." - ie ministers routinely leak and spin all sensitive statistics well before official publication, and well before critics get a sight of them
  • "Ensure that government statements issued alongside official statistics... are labelled clearly as policy statements (or ministerial statements) and are readily distinguished from a statistical release; and meet basic professional standards (for example, statistics should be cited accurately, and charts should be drawn in an accurate and impartial way)" - ie ministers routinely misuse and abuse official statistics as a propaganda tool, including the use of inaccurate and misleading numbers and charts.

Doc Goebbels isn't in it - no wonder we don't trust them any more.

And to hammer the point home, we also got UKSA's full assessment of the Home Office knife stats scandal just before Christmas (see here).

As we recall, Jacqui did sort of say sorry for publishing the stats early, but needless to say, the lies and spin went much deeper than that. We now know that some of the stats were released against the specific advice of the senior official statisticians, and the UKSA rips into the Home Office's so-called Fact Sheet as a tissue of deception. It's worth recording precisely what they say:

"Selective or otherwise inappropriate comparisons - Data for October 2008 and June 2008 are compared several times. This is not self-evidently appropriate because seasonal factors may affect such comparisons. Furthermore, monthly figures are inherently more volatile than averaged figures.

Some statistics refer to the 9 English TKAP areas, some to the 10 in England and Wales, without clear explanation or justification. The proportion of people caught with a knife and charged is given only for London, as is the change in the numbers of young victims of knife crime.

Lack of contextual information - "Hospital admissions 27% lower…" refers only to the 9 TKAP areas in England. There is no record of whether admissions were lower in the other areas – no figures for a ‘control’ group.

There is no indication of how knife crime has changed for the groups not reported upon.

"Over 105,000 stop and searches for offensive weapons" – no context is given for whether this number has gone up or down, or how it compares with that for other areas. Similar points apply to the statement about the number of shops tested for underage sales.

Youth violence is reported as being 30% lower in Halloween week than in the previous year. "Halloween week" is not a recognised period for statistical comparisons. And no evidence is given about the reasons for this change – it could be because of the weather or other external factors.

Drawing inappropriate conclusions - Some of the conclusions drawn are based on small numbers, and may therefore be unsafe.

Unsubstantiated claims - No evidence is given to back up the claim (in the HO Press Release) that ‘those caught with knives are now three times more likely to be sent to prison’.

Selective and inappropriate comparisons, lack of context, inappropriate conclusions, unsubstantiated claims - does it get any worse than that?

We all understand we can never have honest politicians. Fine. But we do need honest statistics so we can all make up our own minds.

Scholar is absolutely right. We need a complete separation between the collection and dissemination of our National Statistics on the one side, and government ministers on the other. We need a firewall.

PS Of course, our National Statistics are not the only pillar of state whose credibility has been undermined by political manipulation. There's the BBC, where an overtly leftist agenda has wrecked any claims it once had to impartiality (this morning they labelled Next boss Simon Wolfson as "a Conservative supporter", merely for pointing out that conditions in the High St had not been improved by Gordo's £12bn VAT "giveaway" - when did you last hear them introduce say Will Hutton as a Labour supporter?). And then there's the Met Office - yes the Met Office of Group Captain Stagg fame - which has undermined its credibility by becoming senior propagandist for the eco hippies. As Mr Booker wrote at the weekend, "The Met Office has long since abandoned any pretence that it is an impartial scientific body when it comes to promoting its favourite cause of man-made climate change. It is just a pity that our Met Office's comically consistent inability to predict weather even a few weeks ahead (let alone a century hence) is beginning to make it an international laughing stock."

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