Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Guardian acts fast to clean up mess over Mandarin morale

Over the weekend, the normally somewhat dry Guardian corrections column contained a bit of a significant whoopsie.

Apparently a piece on morale in the Home Office had to be entirely re-written due to "multiple inaccuracies".

The piece, based on polling by Civil Service World which looked at how workers in Whitehall viewed their Departments, erred in several ways when it sought to portray the Home Office as most demoralised and then link this to the Brodie Clark debacle.

Over to CSW Editor Matt Ross, who had a letter published in Saturday's edition:

"Our research did not examine how "demoralised" or "discontented" civil servants are, nor did it assess how many civil servants departmental staff judge to be "incompetent". The Guardian appears to have confused the answers to various different questions, and repeatedly drawn unfounded conclusions. 
The article also links our findings to the Brodie Clark affair, on the basis that the survey reveals poor morale in the Home Office and a reluctance on the part of ministers to pursue innovative policies – but our survey didn't cover morale, and on readiness to take risks in the pursuit of innovation the Home Office came out close to the civil service average. 
The figures quoted in fact cover views of the barriers to "involving external stakeholders in policy development". 
Meanwhile, while we found Home Office officials were the most negative about their department's capabilities, the findings on the department's management of poorly performing staff fell within the average range.
The Ministry of Defence figures on the management of poor performance were also close to the average, and the results quoted relate to ministry officials' views on the capabilities which the department needs to improve: a higher than average proportion named "recruitment, retention, and performance management" as a priority for improvement. 
Our survey did not poll 14,000 civil servants, but 1,400. And I did not provide the quotes attributed to me: some of them seem to be versions of comments by Dave Penman, the FDA union's deputy general secretary, quoted in our own coverage of the survey findings."

So in all, quite a few errors. To be fair to the Guardian it is still the case that the Home Office was the only Department where more respondents felt their Department had "the capabilities required to better meet the challenges facing it", but after that it all gets a bit messy - particularly the quote attribution.

And to be super fair to the paper: how about that correction process? Within a matter of days we got a new article, a correction in the corrections column, and a letter from the wronged party.

The Guardian isn't alone in mangling poll results, and this most definitely isn't the most shocking case, but when sorting out the slip-ups, the paper is perhaps the only one enforcing what should be the absolute minimum in corrective action.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Is this the most misunderstood political statistic ever?

Some time ago, Ben Goldacre accorded a figure from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) the status of "the worst Government statistic ever created".

Sure enough, the woeful attempt at puffing up potential procurement savings means whoever was behind it should hang their head in shame.

But this week I was reminded of a figure which leaves me fuming every time I hear it misused. Given that it first surfaced almost two years ago I can only guess at what the cumulative effect on my blood pressure has been.

On this week's Question Time, the panel considered the funding cuts/staff reductions faced by forces.

Would not such cuts mean less bobbies on the beat and more crime on the street? Not according to Disabilities Minister Maria Miller.

Arguing that there was plenty of police spare capacity, she said:
"What matters is that we actually get more of those police out on the streets. At the moment we have got just one in ten policemen out fighting crime and the rest are stuck in back offices."

This has to be the most misused figures in Westminster of recent years.

In the way presented by Maria Miller it is plain wrong. It comes from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) who in a report in 2010 gave the Westminster this crucial bit of information. But as More or Less, Full Fact, and no doubt numerous others have highlighted, just because one in ten are on the street it does no mean that the other 90 per cent are pushing paper clips around the office.

The crucial thing is tat 100 per cent here means the total number of officers and PCSOs available to staff the Police's 24/7 operation. However cushy a deal you may think the police have, expecting them all to be available on the beat at all hours of the day, seems a tad harsh.

Some are off duty, some have days off, some are sick, some are in court, etc. Also, the Police have other things to do than be on the beat.

One of the biggest chunks taken out of the 100 per cent actually comes from police doing other stuff, and the examples given in the report are investigation and intelligence. Community policing and response may be important to voters, but surely there are other areas officers need to work in to fight crime?

The big problem is that when a half-stat like this gets into the echo chamber that is the public debate over policy, it really highlights how misconceptions get out there.

HMIC produced a report, which in fairness does question if police human resources are being employed in the most efficient way.

But then part the findings are summarised as "one in ten police are visible at any one time" this is seized on by a new Government looking to reform the police, and the press, then suddenly it is pretty widespread in an oversimplified form being cited by people who have little idea what it is based on or what it means.

Because of this, continues to get parroted by people who, in all likelihood haven't read the original report. They will have just heard/read the 'one in ten police on the street stat', and filled in the other 90 per cent with their own presumptions about how the police spend their time.

It just goes to show how just a little bit of misunderstanding (and for argument's sake we assume the misunderstanding is accidental) can distort figure into a rather potent trump card in the argument for the funding changes and reforms the police are facing.

After all, it is pretty potent. You would be hard pushed to find anyone who would argue that a 10-90 split of police time between busting street crime and filling in forms is desirable or efficient. Which leaves those using the stat in this way clear to put forward their remedy as something bound to improve what would be a shocking state of affairs. Were it true.

What this figure does at a stroke is undermine any attempt to have a more informed debate about how to reform the police to cope with tighter funding. Which is a shame because while this figure may have been twisted, the tone of the HMIC report is still that there IS room to make a more efficient police service.

While the aforementioned DCLG figure has all the hallmarks off a number cooked up by advisors to grab unsupportable headlines, this HMIC one is different.

This speaks more to the problem of the chinese whispers effect in political debate, and a willingness to cite figures without checking them, just because they conform to an outlook you in the most part have already - and this is a much more pervasive and harder to tackle problem.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

The quotes that don't make the headlines...

Warning that UK 'may never fully recover if Greece exits Euro: Top forecaster says Britain would face long recession'- The Guardian front page headline, May 19 2012

"[Office for Budget Responsibility head Robert] Chote said there were so many uncertainties around what might happen with Greece and the eurozone that trying to produce firm predictions was not "particularly helpful". - The Guardian, May 19 2012

For the avoidance of doubt here are the rest of Chote's quotes in the piece:

"The head of the UK's OBR said the deepening crisis in the eurozone could force him to tear up his forecasts, made only two months ago, that Britain would post modest growth of 0.8% this year.

"The concern is that you end up with an outcome in the eurozone that creates the same sort of structural difficulties in the financial system and in the economy that we saw in the past recession, and that has consequences both for hitting economic activity in the economy, but also its underlying potential," said Chote.

With economic output in the UK still 4% below its peak level when the recession began in early 2008, the prime minister and the governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, have expressed concern in recent days about the vulnerability of Britain to the eurozone.

Chote said he was particularly concerned about the possibility that a second deep recession would leave permanent scars. "That means not just that the economy weakens and then strengthens again – it goes into a hole and comes out – but that you go down and you never quite get back up to where you started."

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Sucked in by the Ministry of Defence black hole?

On Monday pretty much every news outlet reported that the Ministry of Defence has managed to close a £38 billion black hole.

Strangely, what they didn't do was report anything about how this blackhole was worked out and how the MoD had got it down.

Of course in short news bulletins there is only so much space. But it came as a surprise to see papers not getting to grips with it, and instead accepting it as a given.

The problem is that when the MoD started bandying about this £38 billion figure they couldn't be too specific about where it came from.

Neither Full Fact nor Channel 4 Factcheck were able to get to the bottom of it - indeed they uncovered estimates from the National Audit Office which conflicted with them.

Liam Fox while he was defence secretary claimed hat the £38 billion hole would open up if defence spending remained level in real terms. The NAO said this would only happen is spending was maintained in cash terms over the same period. Quite a divergence.

Even Chair of the Defence Select Committee said that the Minister of Defence had "been using this figure of £38 billion without there being any great degree of clarity.”

This is not to say it is bogus, It just bugs me that questions were asked about the figure when it was first trotted out. these questions were not answered, and now everyone is using it, like there's nothing to worry about.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Mail, Marmite and what we mean by raising standards

The Daily Mail? Newspaper of the year?! Lifetime achievement award for Littlejohn?!?

The legions of Mail haters across the country will have been aghast to learn that their bette noir had beaten The Times and The Guardian to the London Press Awards gong.

Despite reams written about the paper's dodgy presentation of information lacklustre corrections process, the paper has been recognised by the industry.

In March the Mail also received the Newspaper of the Year award from the Society of Editors.

But both awards mean would be press reformers need to think about the implications.

Much as some people might like to think that the paper - and Mr Littlejohn - are a laughing stock credibility-wise, they are clearly not to everyone.

When the Mail is applauded rather than attacked we should be asking why, rather than instead questioning the planetary origins of people praising the paper.

After all neither I, nor in all probablity you, are a typical reader of a mid-market or tabloid paper. 

London Press Club compared Richard Littlejohn to Marmite, and in the context of the debate about press standards, holds true for the Daily Mail.

As a big Marmite fan, I wouldn't take kindly to the haters forcing the company to 'raise the standards' of the recipe, for argument's sake by reducing the salt content. While I wouldn't suggest a yeast extract has the same potential to sway politicians and public opinion as a national newspaper, anyone seeking to change either of them has to find a response to an argument that goes something like:

'So you don't like Marmite/The Daily Mail. Fine, don't buy it, and quit trying to ruin it for the rest of us.'

People in favour of reform to press regulation that would tackle inaccuracies and distortions need to consider that even under a perfectly reformed system they will probably still not like the Daily Mail. Just like a low-salt Marmite might be a better bet health-wise, but it isn't going to it make it any less divisive a toast topping.

The point is this: Reform won't or shouldn't change any newspaper out of all recognition.

Some of the things that the Mail gets praised for, influence, readership, strong identity, etc are not inseparable from distortions and inaccuracies that get printed.

If you don't like the Daily Mail because it often takes right wing positions, it will probably still often take right wing positions under any reformed system.

If you don't like the Daily Mail because it runs a lot of negative stories about, say, immigrants, regulatory reform will probably not stop this. So long as the stories are accurate (net migration is quite high after all) its an editorial judgement as to whether this is portrayed as a good or bad thing for the country. Lots of people feel immigration is an important issue for the county, and perhaps newspaper coverage fans this, but I don't see how regulation can make the Mail roll out the welcome mat for  immigrants.

The paper will probably also go on saying the criminal justice system is too soft and that welfare spending is too high.

If you don't like it because it campaigns for policy changes, this will probably not change under a reformed regulatory system. While I personally dislike the influence of this populist campaigning from newspapers why shouldn't a publisher be able to do this? The answer is tougher ministers not tougher regulations.

Clearly, there are practices that need to be cut out. The dodgy headline not supported by the text of what an article says, (aka 'the caveat in paragraph 19') and clear cases where the facts of a case have been significantly distorted - for example the health and safety gawn mad stories that turn out to be bogus would hopefully die a death.

However there are others where if the story had been toned down a little the paper concerned could still have worked itself into a lather of indignation without also getting its facts wrong. Much as I disliked the reporting, could a newspaper not get just as agitated about a third of incapacity benefit claimants being found fit for work as when pretending it is two thirds or more?

Higher standards shouldn't mean stopping the Mail from being the Mail, or the Sun from being the Sun. Perhaps there might be more of a change to be witnessed on the currently unregulated Daily Star and Daily Express, but I'm only speculating.

Detractors of any of these papers should consider whether if the things the things they want to stop that newspaper doing can really be turned into universal maxims governing what the press can and can't do.

Defenders of the popular press highlight the important job such publications play in communicating current affairs to the man on the street.

Great. But why speak up for this role of informing the masses by defending a publication's ability to spread inaccurate information, and resist/bury corrections?

If readers believe what they read in their newspaper (and in 2008 67 per cent of Mail readers did) then it is vital the information is accurate. If few readers trust a paper (in the same poll only 29% of Sun readers did) what does the paper have to lose by trying to boost its credibility?

Unless you believe that inaccuracies are an integral part of the tabloid and mid-market press, surely a paper that keeps its identity but has more credibility in both they eyes of the readers and the snipers is surely a good thing?

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Met reply, unmet deadline, met with frustration...

Last month I expressed doubts about the presentation of some figures given to the Leveson Inquiry about the cost of the police investigation into phone hacking.

London Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse told the inquiry that at an expected total cost of £40 million the cost of police work and hacking and related investigations was costing more than the annual budget to tackle child abuse.

The comparison was a flawed one, contrasting as it did the total cost of a multi-year police investigation with a single year budget for another type of crime fighting.

But nevertheless the predictable thing happened and newspapers seized on the outrage-ready 'more spent on hacking than protecting children' headline.

Before I rattled off a complaint to the dear old Press Complaints Commission I thought I would at least try and get a bit more information from the Met on where this £40 million figure came from.

I asked, by way of a Freedom of Information request, for a year-by-year breakdown of previously incurred costs and projected costs for the forthcoming year(s). That way the cost could be compared against the annual figure for child protection to see in what year, if any the comparison was valid.

Sadly the Met seem out to spoil such investigation, or at least slow it down. The response to my request stated they are seeing whether the info is exempt from FoI request.

So a year by year breakdown of a total amount that is already a matter of public record is potentially exempt from the FoI?

Tis but a little bit of extra detail behind Mr Malthouse's figure, so why do they even need to consider it - and use up another month in the process?

Hmmm. I say again: Hmmm.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Am I stupider than the Department for Work and Pensions?

Something about last Sunday's Sun has been bothering me all week.

Over the weekend the paper ran a piece detailing not only the vast sums being paid in housing benefit but cited evidence showing recipient numbers were on the up. According to the report there had been a 76% increase in people receiving over £20,000 per year.

But it isn't the rights or wrongs of the payments that has been on my mind, but where these figures came from.

Of course, they probably came from the Department for Work and Pensions. But keep in mind this a place with previous on cherry picking stats for the press to send out a message of extravagance, fraud and idleness about the benefits system. Strangely these numbers would be given to the press, but not published for wider scrutiny.

This got so bad that in 2010 the Department was warned about "serious deficiencies" in the way it fed data to the press.

While the string of stories didn't stop, DWP did at least make a little archive of these tempting, tabloid ready morsels (or ad hoc analyses as they call them) for the rest of us to see.

Which brings us this week. Normally whenever a story like this comes up, my first port of call is the ad hoc analysis page.

But this time no briefing on housing benefits could I find. Same story in the most recent housing benefit bulletin, likewise the Parliamentary answers and Freedom of Information log turned nothing up, even if there was one closely related set of figures.

What is going on? Have DWP lurched back into their murky old ways? Surely they would not be foolish enough to do what they had previously been chided for?

Indeed perhaps I just can't find the data in question, and it is me who is at fault.

If I am missing a obviously placed stats release I will acknowledge the egg on my face, if not the DWP have some questions to answer.

So who is being stupid? Me or the DWP?

It's probably not a binary choice...

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Roy of the regulators: What should the PCC do about Hodgson harranging?

The furore over today's Sun page has rumbled on throughout the day. Not only was the FA narked enough to let their displeasure be known to the red top, but according to reports, the issue has been raised with the Press Complaints Commission.

To be honest when I saw the page I was hardly enraged enough to dust off my pitchfork and head to Wapping. But nevertheless a few points on the reaction it prompted:

Is this in any way a breach of the Code?

Looking at the PCC Code it's hard to see where a breach has occurred.  Clause 12 states:

"The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability."

But I sincerely doubt even the most sympathetic complainant would class an apparently inability to pronounce the letter 'R' properly as a disability.

Even if there was a code covering mockery of funny ways of talking, the PCC also has a third party rule, which essentially says that only the subject of stories can pursue complaints. They do waive this rule for things like basic points of factual accuracy, which this is not.

Good as it is to see Sun readers (assuming they were readers) taking action to let the paper know that they thought that the coverage was in bad taste. But it is hard to see the PCC doing anything, since the Commission could never be accused of being over-zealous.

Is any remedy really worth it?

Even if action were in the offing, what kind of response could there be that would not heap further scorn on Hodgson?

I strongly believes that when paper gets it wrong, a printed correction/clarification/apology is the absolute least the paper should do, so it is funny to come across a case where this doesn't seem the best way forward

Every time I heard defenders of the PCC argue that corrections can't be the solution in every case, I dismiss it as mere bluster to let publishers off with offering pitiful offers of corrective action like amending the online archive that few people will read again.

Even though the PCC complaints are not coming from the new England manager, nor has there been any indication of him being that bothered, an apology risks making him look like a thin skinned wimp even if he didn't care.

But as it stands, the reaction against The Sun seems to have got people more on Hodgson's side. Is there really any more that can be done that wouldn't turn this good will turn into a sympathy vote?