Watchdog v newshound
- 21 March 2012
- From the section UK
With just a few days to go until Sir Michael Scholar leaves his job at the helm of the UK Statistics Authority (UKSA), the watchdog has for the first time turned its fire, not on politicians or civil servants it thinks have misused official stats, but on members of the press.
In a briefing paper published on its website, the UKSA says Daily Mail coverage of crime figures on the riots "is likely to have left its readers with the impression that far fewer crimes were recorded as a result of the disorder in August than was actually the case".
The statistics watchdog has not previously commented directly on the use of official statistics by the media, limiting its scrutiny to the behaviour of the government and national politicians.
The criticism is a response to an article published in the Daily Mail in January headlined: "Rioting is 'airbrushed' from official crime statistics as most trouble-hit areas record a drop in violent crime."
The story highlighted the relatively small number of "public disorder" crimes recorded in the official statistics following the disturbances saying "reading the crime figures yesterday, it is almost as if the five days of widespread looting and violence never took place".
However, today's UKSA monitoring paper states that, while the Daily Mail quoted the correct number of specific offences of disorder, their story "did not give the numbers of the other offences" connected to the rioting.
For example, while the paper contrasts the widespread violence and arson in Croydon with just seven disorder offences, the UKSA calculates that hundreds more disorder-related offences were recorded by police in the area, including acquisitive crime, criminal damage and violence.
The authority suggests the paper's coverage may have misled its readers into thinking the authorities had not logged riot offences in the crime records. "For example, the article says that in Croydon the Metropolitan Police only recorded seven disorder offences, while in fact a total of 430 offences were recorded."
The Daily Mail article claims the disparity between a fall in recorded crime and the "avalanche of offences" during the riots was down to the way police officers classify crimes.
"Some forces classified hundreds of feral thugs rampaging through different streets in the same city as just one incident of public disorder," the paper claims. "Similarly, mass looting in which one person broke into a shop only to be followed by dozens more was recorded as a single offence."
The authority, however, does not agree with the Daily Mail analysis. It points out that a substantial amount of relevant statistical information on the disorder was made available by the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office.
But it also accepts that the crime figures "could perhaps have highlighted more clearly the distinction between specific disorder offences under the Public Order Act and the full range of disorder-related crime".
What is perhaps most interesting about the commentary, however, is that the authority sees its role as taking to task journalists who it deems to have undermined public confidence in official statistics.
When it was first created in 2008, the authority saw its principal responsibility as promoting and safeguarding the production and publication of official stats by government departments and agencies. Its Code of Practice applies only to "UK bodies that are responsible for official statistics" and, initially at least, the chair of the authority, Sir Michael Scholar, largely restricted his attention to the activities of government.
However, the legislation that created the UKSA also entitles the authority to "ensure good practice in relation to official statistics" and it is that broader safeguarding remit that appears to justify his organisation's critique of a newspaper story.
Nevertheless, the decision publicly to question the journalism of a popular and influential paper like the Daily Mail is not without its risks. Close to retirement, it appears Sir Michael is content to live dangerously.
In a speech last September Sir Michael talked of a powerful alliance between ministers pursuing power and "those in the Press and media who wish to make money and themselves exercise power".
"This alliance is, I believe, the greatest source of corruption in modern times. It dwarfs the petty corruption revealed in the Parliamentary expenses scandal. It is the genus of which the Murdoch affair is a species," he said.
With just days to go before he hands over control the UKSA to Andrew Dilnot, Sir Michael has decided it is legitimate for the authority to consider if journalists are undermining public confidence in official statistics. Whether Mr Dilnot, who takes over on 1 April, will follow suit is another question.
I have asked the Daily Mail for a comment and will add their response as soon as I get it.
UPDATE 12:15 GMT
It has been pointed out to me that the article in question appeared only in the MailOnline and not in the printed version of the Daily Mail. A similar story, not mentioned by the UKSA, appeared on the Daily Telegraph website at around the same time.
Associated Newspapers who publish MailOnline have told me they don't wish to comment further on the original article.
UPDATE 23 March 10:20 GMT
The Royal Statistical Society has been in touch following this story and Jill Leyland, the society's vice president said this:
"Misreporting of statistics by the press has often been excused on the grounds that the statistics themselves were poorly presented or opaque. And the UK Statistics Authority has, rightly, not been slow to criticise official statisticians when this was the case.
"But on this occasion it finds that the statisticians essentially did a good job, and that a substantial amount of both summary and more detailed information had been published in the months following the riots. The Daily Mail would appear to have no grounds for its accusation that rioting had been 'airbrushed' from official crime statistics. It is good that the Statistics Authority is prepared to criticise a national newspaper when it unjustifiably undermines confidence in official statistics."