Archive for the ‘jacqui smith’ tag

Exposure of the stats crime is the real story

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Humiliation for Labour on Knife Crime‘ (The Express). ‘Home Secretary Jacqui Smith apologises over knife crime figures‘ (The Telegraph).

The most interesting aspect of this story was not that the government was spinning statistics about knife crime, but that this was exposed by Sir Michael Scholar. In a corruscating letter to Jeremy Heywood, Permanent Secretary at Number 10, and in robust broadcast interviews after that, Sir Michael said that the release of the statistics was “premature, irregular and selective“.

Statistics are always being spun. Spun by the media, spun by the government, spun by NGOs. And of all statistics, crime figures are most ripe for manipulation. The statistics most often referred to by the media come from the British Crime Survey that relies not on police records but on a regular survey commissioned by the Home Office. Critics suggest the survey under-reports crime – for example by excluding under-16s (eg. see Wikipedia entry).
New Labour became notorious for using figures in ways that suited them. Blair and Brown frequently double counted government spending (e.g. see Peter Oborne on how £9bn miraculously became £21bn in the 1998 Comprehensive Spending Review). Large capital projects, most notably PFI, were mysteriously missing from the government’s books. Numerous Home Secretaries inflated police numbers, deflated immigration figures and touted selective successes in bringing down crime. Most memorably New Labour manipulated facts and figures to ‘sex up’ the dossiers justifying the war in Iraq.
Indeed this is the reason that Gordon Brown decided to make the statistics published by the Office for National Statistics independent of government, and why the UK Statistics Authority was set up in April 2008 with Sir Michael Scholar as its first head. Brown wanted to distance New Labour from its reputation for chronic spinning.
Little did Brown realise that his appointment would prove so effective, or that Scholar’s bark would match his bite.
Having now been bitten, will the government take more care in the future? Let’s hope so. But watch out for what happens to Sir Michael. If he is quietly shifted from his post in the next few months we will know that far from learning from its experience, the government will have decided it cannot live without spun statistics.

Written by Martin Moore

December 17th, 2008 at 2:00 pm

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Is media to blame for the overflowing prison population?

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It’s difficult to know how to react to Jack Straw’s claims yesterday that media coverage of crime is encouraging judges, magistrates and MPs to send more people to prison (Alan Travis, ‘Straw warns judges not to overreact to coverage of big trials’).

On the one hand his comments sound reasonable, given the blanket coverage of the Ipswich murders, the Sally Anne Bowman case, the killing of Gary Newlove, and the reporting of the ‘explosion’ of gang crime. And looking back, last August’s hysterical newspaper claims that there was ‘Anarchy in the UK’ now seem faintly bizarre.

But on the other hand it is hard to separate Straw’s comments from the government’s (and opposition’s) own rhetoric about crime. Only today Jacqui Smith told the Mirror that UK gangs ‘are beginning to copy the terrifying tactics of vicious American gangs’ (from Bob Roberts). And Straw himself is not immune to some tough talk. At the last Labour Conference he talked about legislating to protect ‘have-a-go-heroes’ (from Martin Bright). And it was the Conservative leader David Cameron who led the media pack by claiming last summer that the UK was slipping into anarchy.

What is perhaps most interesting about Straw’s comments is the insight they give to his own perspective (and presumably others within the government). In a way it matters as much that Jack Straw thinks the media coverage matters than whether it actually matters or not. Sorry to get all Rumsfeld-ian (known unknowns etc), but if the Secretary of State for Justice (and Lord High Chancellor) believes the media has that much power then, in his case at least, perhaps it does.

Written by Martin Moore

March 11th, 2008 at 3:54 pm

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