Depending on who you believe, I spent last Wednesday undergoing indoctrination at the hands of a group of right wing political extremists bent on subverting the Conservative party.
Which is news to me. I thought I’d spent the afternoon in Committee Room 10 of the Palace of Westminster, listening to a selection of Conservative MPs and right-wing commentators talking about policy and campaigning.
How had I missed the truth? Was there simultaneous translation, available via invisible headsets, which translated Liam Fox’s comments on defence policy into a programme for dismantling the NHS? Were they all secretly receiving messages via chips implanted in their heads, which turned Douglas Carswell’s plans for parliamentary reform into a call for a jihad against the infidels who believe in anthropic global warming?
What’s happened is that Robert Booth, a Guardian reporter (and bizarrely, former editor of trade magazine “Building Design”) has been taking a few lessons from his colleagues Jill Treanor and Julian Glover and their interesting approach to “truth” and “reporting”.
Booth, who’s a jobbing news reporter, rather than a specialist politics hack, made the “discovery” that:
Tory parliamentary candidates have undergone training by a rightwing group whose leadership has described the NHS as “the biggest waste of money in the UK”, claimed global warming is “a scam” and suggested that the waterboarding of prisoners can be justified.
The organisation is the Young Britons’ Foundation, and the training – along with the Parliamentary Rally held on Wednesday – is openly advertised on its website.
To put the scale of Robert Booth’s journalistic idiocy into perspective, imagine that I wrote an article for the Telegraph in which I announced to a shocked world that Labour parliamentary candidates had undergone training by a leftwing group whose leadership has lent public support to a despotic regime which imprisons dissidents, including addressing an official state gathering in that country.
The leftwing group would of course be the Trade Unions Congress; the despotic regime that of Fidel and Raul Castro; and the official state gathering the 2009 International Solidarity Conference held by the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba.
I would rightly be criticised for the alarmist tone and attitude which I had taken, and for suggesting that the TUC’s training of Labour parliamentary candidates is therefore suspect.
Robert Booth has done something similar. He has decided to make noise about the fact that one of the YBF’s organisers has political views that Booth does not like or share, and to imply that those views colour the training provided by YBF.
Why is this story news at all? Donal Blaney holds no elected office, nor is he an official of the Conservative Party. He has views that are (unfortunately, in my view) shared by many people in the United Kingdom. He expressed these views on a public website. There, therefore, no “news” in telling me his views.
If this article was somewhere buried in the paper, I would chalk it up to the substandard journalism of an excitable but somewhat uninformed journalist. But the Guardian chose to put this story on the front page of its print edition, and had it as the top story for much of the day online.
It is difficult, therefore, to draw any conclusion except that the newspaper, at a high level, decided to try and make news, to try and drive a political agenda, by inflating, aggrandising, and spinning a story which had little substance.
I expect such behaviour from the Daily Mirror. I expect it, to a more limited extent, from the Daily Mail. I do not, although perhaps I should, expect it from the Guardian.
Interestingly, the editing was as sloppy as the journalism: the online article contained one apparent lie. The sub-headline states
Candidates trained by rightwing group that rubbishes NHS, dismisses global warming and backs waterboarding
yet Robert Booth himself was careful not to suggest this – probably because it doesn’t seem to be true.
I’ve read the Guardian for over twenty years, and have long believed that if you ignored certain unfortunate black spots (I’m looking at you, Toynbee) it was the best UK daily newspaper. Lately, the black spots are multiplying, and the journalism is getting worse – and worse yet, lazier.
I’m not sure how many more times I can read the Guardian with a sense of weary incredulity, before I finally give up.
In a previous post, I wrote about one of the ironies of the Tory crime statistics mess: that there were perfectly good local examples of significant increases in crime, but these hard numbers were ignored in favour of longer term, more headline grabbing percentage increases.
Another day, another problem.
Published yesterday, “Labour’s Two Nations” is a new Conservative briefing document which sets out to give a detailed account of the inequalities in Britain today. One of the key indices selected was the rate of teenage pregnancies (dataset details here, in PDF format).
Page 7 of the document summarised key statistics, include this about teenage pregnancies:
Teenage girls under 18 are almost three times more likely to become pregnant, and over half are likely to do so.
The analysis behind this is to be found on page 12:
Teenage girls are almost three times more likely to become pregnant. Young women under 18 are three times more likely to fall pregnant in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived areas. In the most deprived areas, 54 per cent are likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18, compared to just 19 per cent in the least deprived areas.
The numbers are all perfectly correct, but the punctuation isn’t: 54 per cent and 19 per cent should have been 5.4 per cent and 1.9 per cent.
By this morning, the document has been corrected online, but not before the Telegraph, BBC, and Guardian – among others – had picked it up. The Guardian accepted it as a mistake, saying:
This particular butter-fingered operation of the calculator appears to be careless rather than malicious but comes just 10 days after the shadow home secretary, Chris Grayling, was publicly rebuked by the head of the UK Statistics Authority Sir Michael Scholar.
The Spectator’s James Forsyth made a different point:
It is easy to see how a mistake like this is made but it is still damaging and made more so by the fact that it gives Labour the opportunity to claim, as they are doing tonight, that the mistake shows that the Tories have no idea how the country actually lives.
Twitter woke to decimal point jokes this morning, with Labour-aligned commentators torn between writing it up as stupidity or trying to identify prejudice in the mistake. On LabourList, Alex Smith argued:
Evidently, the “comprenhsive” [sic] report has put the decimal point in the wrong place, which hardly fills you with confidence. What’s more embarrassing than that is that no one at CCHQ noticed the mistake — that no one thought, “hang on, 54% can’t be right”.
That leaves them open to more attacks — as the Spectator says — that they are totally out of touch with the reality of how the country lives.
I personally struggle with the fact that anyone charged with preparing such a document could look at a statistic that said almost 20% of teenage girls in “affluent” areas would get pregnant before the age of 18, and fail to wonder if that was correct.
It’s embarrassing, and for me raises serious questions about the process for preparing and signing off these documents. There should surely be a step where someone checks the final draft against the original data set.
Seeing this as an online storm in a teacup issue, or as a small PR problem for CCHQ, is wrong. Mistakes like this, and the earlier problems with crime statistics, have to be a concern to local activists. They may want to use information from national party publications on the doorstep – and may well be questioned about it.
The most annoying thing is that this mistake taints perfectly correct information – that teenage girls in deprived areas are almost three times more likely to get pregnant before they’re 18. I can’t see anyone from the Labour party trying to argue that this is an acceptable disparity, just because the rate in deprived areas is 5.4%, not 54%.
Hopefully this latest mistake will lead to some process changes for future briefing papers; it would be unfortunate if these kind of mistakes had to come in threes.