Its a question of trust

Today 07/07/10. I have just finished listening to Prime Minister’s Question Time.
David Cameron answered a question from Harriet Harman on Crime with a whole string of statistics to show that violent crime had risen under Labour. Harriet Harman, in my view rightly, vigorously contested this.
I am seriously concerned by this.
During the early days of the general election Campaign a row broke out when Chris Grayling, who was then the Shadow home secretary came out with what appears to be very similar assertions.
These were picked up by the reporter Mark Easton who established that the assertions were based on the comparison of two sets of figures which should not have been compared.
• The matter was explored in an interview with Chris Grayling on BBC Today.

The Chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir Michael Scholar was seriously concerned that using statistics in this way could have the effect of undermining trust in crime statistics and published the following:–england-and-wales.pdf
Doing damage to trust in statistics has serious consequences. If we reach a point where each side is only prepared to trust the statistics it likes it becomes impossible for us to engage in calm pragmatic analysis of what the problems are and what needs to be done.
Effective politics is about being able to talk to people that we do not necessarily like. Good statistics is a tool to make this possible. Bad statistics can have the effect of locking people into polarised positions. The stalemate that has happened in this PMQs and the previous one is a clear example of that.
We all like statistics which confirm our own position! This article explains why. persuading people to shift from believing what they want to believe to what is the truth will often rely on people being able to trust the information that is given to them.
This government has a problem. I do not believe what I am being told. And I do not think that I am alone in that!
I need to see the government move to a much more careful and well advised use of statistical material before I can begin to hear what they are trying to say!

The first bad news day

To say that I watch Andy Coulson would of course be misleading. The whole point about Andy Coulson is that he is someone we do not see, doing things that we do not know.

I may not watch him, but since his appearance in front of the press standard’s committee, I have been aware of him, and I am now taking an interest in the way that this new Government, under his watchful eye, goes about the job of managing news. It is always impossible to know what he actually does, or what he has a hand in, but we know how things work. We have seen how the relationship between tabloid stories, PMQs, BBC and quality press is used to blow stories up in to the big story of the moment. We can I am sure expect much more of the same.

Andy Coulson’s job has changed of course. Over the last few years, his success will have been judged by the way in which the mood of the nation was being influenced by the media, and the extent to which people accepted that it was all Gordon’s fault. Now his job is different. It is now going to be about finding ways to distract the attention of the nation on days when bad news will predominate.

Today was the first scheduled bad news day, the announcement of £6bn cuts in spending, so out of idle curiosity I scanned the newspaper shelves. Yesterday the News of the World headlines on the sting operation on the Duchess of York had dominated, as a story which is about Royalty, Greed and Subterfuge could be expected to do, so I expected to see quite a lot of that. Here are the front-pages.

The Sun

Army Chief says “I quit”

The Mirror

Outcast Fergie
Small item on Tories party on the eve of £6bn cuts

The Mail

Now will Andrew throw her out?
Osborne war on speed cameras
BA strike will hit Holidays

The Daily Express

£500,000 sting shames Duchess of York
Babies DNA in secret vaults

The Times

Business aid biggest loser as Osborne Wields axe
Kabul Criticises Fox
BA flights threatened
Duke Embarrassed
Article by Libby Purves on how Sarah Ferguson would be better off cooking lasagne.


How Israel offered to sell South Africa the bomb.
Civil service faces £163m squeeze on jobs and travel


First swing of the Axe
Large picture of Sarah Ferguson with an article by Lib Dem Minister Lynn Featherstone condemning her. (This made it on to the BBC news as well)


Juliette’s protest
Civil service braces itself as axe looms.

I thought it was quite bright to have the condemnation of the Duchess given by a Lib Dem Minister, also thought it was quite bright to have all the announcements about cuts actually given by Lib Dem David Laws. There are obviously a lot of advantages to being in a coalition.

Now it would of course be entirely fanciful on my part to suppose that Andy Coulson could possibly have any influence on perpetuating undercover investigation of the Royal family by the News of the World, or on the timing of the release of the news, but it is certainly the case that he understands what gets the British public going, and that he is happy to use that in any way he can.

So all in all the first bad news day has probably gone off quite well for Andy Coulson, but it took a Duchess story to do it. If they are having to throw the Duchess at the first cuts announcement I can only begin to imagine the kind of stories we will be seeing by the time the really bad news starts coming!

Gordon Brown – the web as a power for good

Often we force our politicians to be heard only in soundbites. It is no wonder that we sometimes complain that they are saying nothing meaningful.
This video is I think Gordon Brown speaking as he likes to speak, to a live audience, with his own voice and in his own time.

We’re Going on Boar Hunt!

A speaker at a conference on ageing I went to recently explained why it is that women live longer than men. Apparently it’s because of the boar hunting. Women’s immune systems work better than men’s because with our ancestors women regularly went through periods of semi starvation. This happened because we valued the aggression and energy of the young men who had the job of hunting the boars enough to give them more food. I hadn’t thought of it like that before, but it is a reasonable explanation of why young men do things differently.

There were a series of things on the radio this morning that made me think about young men, and the place of boar hunting behaviour in politics.

There was the quiet measured voice of Hans Blix talking about his impressions of the Chilcot Inquiry. He was talking about his slow and careful search for the truth of what was happening in Iraq, and how this came up against Tony Blair’s certainty and need for decisive action.

Then there was the upsetting case of the violent young brothers in Doncaster
The BBC’s Home editor Mark Easton, did his best to cover this in a fair way, and I found he was also talking about the certainties of young men. He recollected the 1993 speech of Tony Blair and the strong impact that the James Bulger case had on the nation. He talked about the way David Cameron is now using this case. He doubted the advisability of using these extreme cases in this way. He felt that Tony Blair was wrong then and David Cameron is wrong now.

This case is of course is following the standard pattern of the “moral outrage” story that seems to be favoured by Conservative media advisors. First you get the lurid headlines, then you get the question at PMQs and then you get the measured speech, in which we are told Cameron will claim that he has the answers and everything previously has failed.

It takes the arrogance of a young man to be able to make these claims, and of course they are not well founded. These are intractable problems, rare cases, indicators of generations of abuse and unhappiness. There are no quick answers. To indicate that there are is to mislead people.

But to come back to the boar hunt. Elections are our political equivalent. Just getting through a gruelling election process is done with a great deal of adrenalin, testosterone and anger. It’s a young man’s game, which is probably why we are regularly treated to shots of David Cameron out jogging, sweating manfully.

The boar hunters may bring home the bacon, but do they have the qualities we need for good government?

Like it or not we probably need young men, their energy, enthusiasm, and even at times their misplaced certainties and arrogance, but we also need to find ways to ensure that back home at camp, when the boar hunting is over, and the process of governing resumes, that other quieter voices will be heard.

So What’s the worst that can happen?

I have just been picking up on a number of interesting things.

Here is a chart of the priorities  identified by the conservative party prospective candidates. This is to be found in Conservative Home.

It is not surprising that concerns about the deficit come far higher up the list than measures to improve services.

A bigger surprise is that the concerns about reducing the carbon footprint ranks quite so low.

Given that the Conservatives fought the local elections in June on the slogan of Vote Blue get Green, this  does make one question how far they mean what they say.

The following  blog from the Telegraph’s writer gives the impression that the Conservative front bench would like to convey the view that their climate change deniers are a rump, and will soon be gone. The PPC statistics might lead us to doubt that.

 It is always a mystery to me why it is that people can be passionately against the idea of taking action on climate change.

This video is I think useful in exploring what is trapping some people into their current belief that inaction is acceptable.

The donation to Andrew Lansley’s office raises uncomfortable issues.

There is a heated discussion going on about the Telegraph’s discovery of a £21,000 donation to the office of Andrew Lansley, the Shadow Minister for Health. It has been made by a well wisher who happens to be involved in the private health industry, and it raises understandable concerns

There is nothing new of course about people who believe that they may have something to gain, or perhaps simply want to see their friends in power, dipping in to their pockets to help a party that they think has a good chance of success.

It is nothing new, but it is something that makes many people feel queasy. Most of us just really do not like the idea that decisions about policy might be influenced, even subliminally, by a minister knowing he can do something to benefit his friends.

But beyond that it is the sheer amount that confuses me.
Ok £21,000 isn’t such a large amount, but presumably it is not the only income that Andrew Lansley’s office has received, and I am frankly puzzled. What do they need that amount of money for? What is it meant to buy?

It is perfectly reasonable for a local party to want to print and distribute a number of leaflets a year – They might want to hire some rooms for some meetings, they might want some posters for the lamp posts, balloons perhaps, possibly even a hoarding or two, but what is the rest of it supposed to do?

I wonder if constituents would want to know how their local parties are spending money and where it is coming from. They might find it interesting if for instance money from the fabled Ashcroft millions is being used to buy glossy leaflets in the hope of impressing them. They might want to know who has expensive websites done by smart professional agencies, and who has something put together by volunteers.

We talk periodically about reforming the funding of politics. I really think we should. With things as they are we have a kind of arms race. The favourites get money that they really don’t need being thrown at them in a way that perhaps quite unjustly raises questions about their integrity. The others have to scratch about to find just about enough money to do the job properly.

For both it is a distraction.

Personally, I have this unfashionable idea that we need politicians, and that it is a hard enough job for them without having to spend massive amounts of time worrying about money. It is best if we remove both the temptation and the anxiety connected with money, and leave politicians focused on the work we need them to do. We might get a cleaner kind of politics if we do this.

Did the world over-react to swine flue?

Just been watching Newsnight’s piece on did the world over-react to swine flu?

Why is it that we all believed there were to be many thousands of deaths when in fact only 250 people have died.

Why is it that so much money has been spent on drugs, with all the clever clauses in the pharmaceutical companies contracts.

There was one glaring omission in Susan Watts report. She never asked the question about the role the media may have played in this.

My distinct memory of the time when the papers were all going crazy about swine flu is of Jeremy Paxman doing one of his Paxman specials, demanding repeatedly to know “how many people are going to die?”. I also remember that the scientist he was interviewing did a reasonably good job of standing up to this and trying to make the point that we were talking about statistical probabilities rather than reliable predictions of numbers of deaths.

I do at times get a little angry about this.

If someone with the intelligence of Jeremy Paxman gets caught up in this hype and search for headlines then it is hardly surprising that so many of our journalists do the same.

It is time to recognise that the media search for lurid headlines is one of the biggest dangers that good government has to face.

If reputable journalists like Jeremy Paxman join in this kind of clamour, then the government has very little option but to take the measures it did, and they had to do so with the pharmaceutical companies knowing that they hold the ace of public opinion in their hand.

My feelings about journalism and statistics are strong ones. This is because I live in Stafford, and I have been dealing for the last year with the fact that journalists as a species do not appear to be able to read or interpret statistics correctly.

The eye witness stories from Stafford hospital made great media material.- and there are many important things that they teach us about the increasingly difficult task of dealing with our ageing population. These are real questions with national significance. The headline grabbing statistics of numbers of “excess deaths” on the other hand are and always have been nonsense.

In a few weeks the Stafford Hospital Inquiry will present its findings and I think we will be asking a similar question. Did the world over-react to Stafford Hospital?