Monday 24 June 2013

Lies, damned lies and public relations.

In  his splendid chapter on advertising  in   "Cancel the Apocalypse"  Andrew Simms reminds us that the modern public relations industry was born  "out of wartime public information campaigns, or 'propaganda.' "*  So , when we see PR we should think "Dr Goebbels."  Simms also points out that the US Department of Defense now unashamedly speaks of "perception management."**

My friend John Cole has detailed two recent examples here in the UK.

Probity in the Matter of Public Information
“My dictionary defines “probity” as “adherence to the highest principles and ideals; honesty or integrity”.  I would like to think that government ministers set themselves high standards of honesty in reporting into the media.   However, politics being, as Alan Watkins used to put it “a rough old trade”  there is a chance that some ministers might be inclined to put a bit of spin on their announcements.  That being the case, I would nevertheless expect civil servants to be absolutely punctilious in reporting the truth.  A second “however” intrudes: politicians who become ministers tend to take into office with them “Special Advisers” who are not career civil servants, are committed politically to the minister, and just as likely to “spin” as the minister, if not more so.  In recent months I have come across two instances of statistical manipulation by government departments which I have found breathtaking in their dishonesty.

The first instance relates to the degree of success (or failure) of the government to reduce the budget deficit.  Yesterday (June 21st) saw an announcement that, following corrections and updatings, the size of the deficit for 2012-3 was actually slightly higher than the deficit for 2011-2.   Yet Coalition ministers have consistently asserted that “we have reduced the deficit by a third”. 

Not so.

Even before this week's update, an article by John Lanchester in the January 2013 “London Review of Books” delved a bit more forensically into the Chancellor's claims.   In 2010, in his first budget, George Osborne claimed that the budget deficit was 4.8% of GDP.   In November 2012 this was said to have reduced to 4.3% of GDP.   What Osborne did not add (lying by omission?) was that the reduction was achieved only by adding into the calculation a whole series of one-off positive events.  By definition these windfalls will not repeat.

These one-offs start with £3.5 billion to the Treasury from the auctioning off of the 4G telecom spectrum and the transfer into the governments accounts of the Royal Mail pension fund (worth £28 billion).  Apparently the liabilities of the pension fund are also transferred to the government, but are, for some reasoning described by Lanchester as “rococo”, the increase in liabilities does not enter into the calculation of the deficit.  As and when the Royal Mail is sold off to a private buyer there will be another short-term, one-off boost to the books. (One is reminded of Harold Macmillan and the “selling off of the family silver”).  The interest credit arising from the Bank of England's “Quantitative Easing”, which might be expected to remain with the Bank of England has been snaffled by Osborne to boost the books.

Lanchester points out that if all this creative accounting is stripped out, 0.6 is added to the deficit, taking it up to 4.9% of GDP, which is higher than the figure with which Osborne began.

My second example relates to Ian Duncan Smith, his Special Advisers at the Department of Work and Pensions and their efforts to introduce a cap on benefits.    IDS proudly claimed; “Already we have seen 8,000 people who would have been affected by the cap move into jobs”.  This was challenged by the UK Statistics Authority which reprimanded the minister and his SPADs, commenting that not only did the DWP statistics not show that effect, they could not possibly have shown that.  The UK Statistics Authority has as chair the highly respected Andrew Dilnot.  According to a report in “The Observer” (12th May) , Mr Dilnot is thinking of sending his inspectors into the DWP  “because Duncan Smith is a habitual manipulator”.

Prior to reading the “Observer” piece, I had already formed a very poor impression of Mr Duncan Smith's lack of probity.  This arose from reading a carefully researched report from a group of Non-Conformist churches on poverty and those in receipt of benefits entitled “The Truth and Lies Report”.  Pages 9-12 of that Report is a section headed “Troubled Families and Troubled Statistics – A Case Study in Misrepresenting the Most Vulnerable”. 

The Troubled Families Unit within the DWP produced a report of sixteen case studies “of the kinds of families that will be targeted”.  To select the sixteen cases the report used what it called “dipstick analysis”.  The resulting selection has sixteen families with an average of between four and five children.  However, the average number of children within all the families in the group (of 130 000 or so families that are "benefit dependent") is two. As the “Truth and Lies Report” points out, in 2011 there were only 130 families with 10 children in the whole of Britain on out of work benefits, and only 10 families on such benefits with 12 children.  Yet one of each family type appears within the sixteen selected by dipstick analysis.   As the “Truth and Lies Report”  tartly comments: “This is extremely unlikely using any respectable sampling technique.”   In short, the sixteen families used within the case studies were not a random sample, but carefully selected to allow the minister and his SPADs to spin the story they wanted.

When politicians and their Special Advisers behave in this way it is no wonder that their standing with the general public falls to abysmal levels.  Voters have every right to expect a much higher standard of probity from their elected members – and also from their public servants.

John Cole    22nd  June 2013

*   page 291
** page 292

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