Friday 7 June 2013

Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

Earlier this week, Top Gear fans everywhere gave a warm welcome to the news that police would be given new powers to fine people who drive in the middle lane on motorways for too long. At the time, I pointed out on Twitter that the people cheering the ability to fine motorists who "get in their way" on the road are the same ones who scream "war on motorists!" if laws on speeding, jumping red lights and so on are enforced against them.

The Mail was delighted with the crackdown on "road hogs" but today they're firmly back in the "enforcing the law is a bad thing" camp.

The RAC Foundation has today published a weighty analysis of the impact of speed cameras on accident rates. The headline findings?
Deaths and serious injuries down a quarter near speed cameras
Analysis of datafor 551 fixed speed cameras in 9 areas shows that on average the number of fatal and serious collisions in their vicinity fell by more than a quarter (27%) after their installation.There was also an average reduction of 15% in personal injury collisions in the vicinity of the 551 cameras.

And that's the line that is being widely reported elsewhere, for example on the BBC:

And in the Belfast Telegraph:

But over in Mailworld, speed cameras have always been A Bad Things, unfairly penalising innocent drivers whose only crime is to break the law. So a report that describes a correlation between speed cameras and a fall in fatal and serious accidents cannot be allowed to stand. Fortunately for the narrative favoured by the Derry Street massive, the RACF also found that at just under four per cent of speed camera locations the number of serious accidents had increased following the installation of cameras. Which gives them the excuse to use this headline:

The story begins:
"Speed cameras are increasing the risk of a fatal or serious accidents in some areas, a study suggests. It highlights a number of sites where collision rates have risen ‘markedly’ since cameras were put in place. The study raises new doubts about the usefulness of speed cameras."

Of course, the study does nothing of the sort. Nowhere does it raise any "new doubts about the usefulness of speed cameras", which is why the Mail is unable to quote what any of them are. Over and over again the report underlines the decline in accidents after the installation of cameras:
"Seven of the ten results in Table A2.1 point clearly to reductions in PIC [personal injury collisions of all severities] ranging from about 9% to 32% following camera establishment. Two of the others indicate no change, and one points clearly to an increase of about 10%." - p31
"Nine of the ten results in Table A2.2 point clearly to reductions in FSC [fatal or serious collisions] ranging from about 15% to 53% following camera establishment. The other indicates an increase of about 5%, which could well have arisen by chance." - p32
"Six of the ten results in Table A2.3 point clearly to higher numbers of PIC per year in the last three full years before camera establishment than in previous years." - p36
"Five of the ten results in Table A2.4 point clearly to higher numbers of FSC per year in the last three full years before camera establishment than in previous years" - p37
"In terms of severity of collisions, this indicates that in the vicinity of cameras in this partnership area the number of casualties per collision was about 10% lower, the proportion of collisions that were fatal or serious was about 55% lower and the proportion of casualties that were KSI [killed or seriously injured] was about 50% lower after establishment of cameras than well before their establishment" - p45

The vast majority of the report points towards speed cameras making the roads safer. Yes, there is an an acknowledgement that in less than four per cent of cases the number of accidents has gone up, but the Mail even manages to misrepresent this. Professor Stephen Glaister from the RAC Foundation says:

"The study has also identified a number of camera sites in the vicinity of which collisions seem to have risen markedly. This may or may not be related to the cameras but warrants further investigation. Therefore, on the basis of this study, we have now written to eleven local authorities suggesting they examine the positioning and benefits of a total of 21 cameras."

Note the large caveat in bold - he's saying that further work is needed to establish whether speed cameras are responsible for the increase in accidents. How does the Mail present this?

"The RAC Foundation, who carried out the study, believes some of the cameras appear to be causing accidents rather than preventing them."

How exactly does the RAC Foundation saying "this may or may nor be related to the cameras" turn into the RAC Foundation believing "some of the cameras appear to be causing accidents"? To give the Mail some credit they do print the part of Prof Glaister's quote in which he adds this caveat. But they chop out the first half of his statement, which reads:
"At the end of 2010 we published a report by Professor Richard Allsop which concluded that without speed cameras there would be around 800 more people killed or seriously injured each year at that time. Overall his new work reinforces those earlier conclusions".

Instead, this is relegated to the very last line of the entire story, when it is not even run as a direct quote.

Elsewhere, the Mail tries to make us think the situation could be even worse, that speed cameras could be killing and maiming countless thousands of innocent drivers up and down the country.

"And [The RAC Foundation] say that because only a third of speed-camera partnerships overall supplied data in a usable form, the true extent of the problem could be much worse."

However, yet again the RAC Foundation have said nothing of the sort. The report highlights that two-thirds of bodies required to release data on speed cameras and accidents have failed to do so. And Prof Glaister complains that this is "dissapointing". But because the report was produced by a sensible academic, one who understands that you make judgements based on the evidence you can see rather than what you can't, it does not at any point say that "the true extent of the problem could be much worse". To claim they have done so is a total fabrication, a lie.

As if this hatchet job wasn't enough, the Mail decide to finish the job by introducing another pet hate:

"Supporters of speed cameras have given them the more politically-correct title of ‘safety cameras’"

Quite how calling something a "safety camera" instead of a "speed camera" is "politically correct" is beyond me, but it all adds to the Mail narrative of "bad stuff being forced on normal folk" - speed cameras, political correctness, I'm shocked they didn't try to squeeze gay marriage and Muslims in there somehow too.

Further down there's a reference to "so-called Safety Camera Partnerships". Why the "so-called"? That's what they ARE called. If we're going to start adding that prefix to statements that some may not agree with, it's only fair to call Ray Massey, the author of this piece a so-called journalist, and his employers a so-called newspaper.

Monday 3 June 2013

DWP Minister caught making up "facts"

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan may or may not have once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but they can't have their own facts. Which is why it's been quite worrying to see so many recent incidents of the Government making up headline-grabbing claims with no basis in fact in order to, well, grab headlines. 

Ministers have repeatedly been told off for abusing official statistics in an attempt to prove a point, while Michael Gove was amusingly exposed as having used a PR puff-poll advertising a crappy TV channel as the basis of claims about the standard of education under the previous government. Now it's Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb who has been caught making us his own facts. 

This Government likes nothing more than a good crackdown, and back in May Webb announced the latest. He told the Daily Telegraph that people who live overseas and haven't paid National Insurance in the UK would no longer be entitled to a state pension based on their spouse's contributions. There are various holes in the policy - as Full Fact pointed out at the time, it's not exactly a massive problem to begin with, and a couple of days later the Telegraph itself highlighted that the policy could have unexpected consequences for "ex-pat wives" who trail around various overseas postings with their husbands.

But whatever you think of the policy, you can't deny Webb and his department the right to come up with such things. The problem is, he didn't end there.

In a bid to give the story legs, Webb said the following:

"Women married to British men, we are getting more of them claiming a pension based on his record. In some cases, they have never set foot in Britain at all

"There are women who have never been to Britain claiming on their husband’s record. There are also men who have never been to Britain claiming on their wife’s record."
The claim that people who have "never set foot in Britain" are claiming pensions was widely reported. It made the second paragraph in the Telegraph story, the third in the Mail's version, was given airtime on the BBC and Sky and still picks up almost 2,000 hits on Google - and that's just for the exact wording.

The trouble is, it's not true. Or at least, Webb has absolutely no idea whether or not it is, as his own department has just admitted.

As soon as I heard the claim, I smelled a rat - it seemed extremely unlikely that the government would have any means of cross-referencing every single visit to the UK with the NI records and pension claims of people living overseas. So I sent the Department for Work And Pensions an FoI request asking for their official numbers showing how many people claiming a spouse's pension in the way described by Webb had "never set foot in the UK". 

The answer?

"The information requested is not held by the Department as we do not collect information on whether State Pension claimants, who are not currently resident, have ever visited the UK."

So Steve Webb stood up in front of the national media and said something that has no basis in fact. It's entirely possible that some pension claimants have never visited the UK, but it's also possible that there is nobody in this situation. Webb doesn't know either way. 

He could have got round this by saying "it's possible for someone to never visit the UK and still claim a pension", and he'd have been entirely right. But he didn't. He stated, as a fact, that "there are" men and women who have never set foot in Britain but are still claiming pensions here, and he said it despite having no way of knowing whether or not it's true.

It all raises a few questions.

Why does the government think it's acceptable for ministers to create their own facts in order to support their opinions? Why do so many otherwise sensible journalists blindly repeat claims made to them by politicians without checking their provenance?

And has Steve Webb himself had a change of heart since 2006 when, in a speech to the NHS Confederation conference he attacked the Labour administration by saying:
"So much for evidence-based policy. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Government is making it up as it goes along!"