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Why Labour lies about crime in 2017 succeeded where similar Tory lies failed in 2010

BBC Radio 4 puts out a well-regarded programme on statistics called “More or Less”, in which presenter Tim Harford looks at uses and abuses of statistics. The most recent episode was a topical one covering the general election just past.

Here’s a link to the “Post-Election Special” on BBC iPlayer: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08wr7ss

That link won’t last long and may not be playable outside the UK. Downloads of this and other episodes will be available indefinitely here.

If you cannot or prefer not to listen to the programme, I have transcribed the section I wanted to post about below. Typing it all out was slow work. I bothered doing the work for two reasons.

One, the BBC came much closer than it usually does to saying out loud that that the Labour Party knowingly lied on an important matter during the election campaign. We can tell with unusual clarity that Labour knew they were lying because they were lying in exactly the same way that the Tories had lied in 2010, only then the Tories were called out on it.

Two, that there has been an interesting change in the chances of such a lie being challenged before it is too late. When the Tories were telling this particular lie in 2010, they were doing so in the pages of the press and on TV, seen by millions all at once – and talked about all at once. But when Labour told their equivalent lies in 2017, they did it on Facebook posts that are passed between individuals. Though a great number may eventually see the original video, they do so as individuals. If they find it convincing, they pass it on to other individuals, and there is no reason why the recipient should be any better informed than the sender. Compared to a broadcast or news article, or even a blog post, it is less likely to come to the attention of those who know enough to rebut it. Even if it does and they do, the rebuttal is less likely to ever come to the attention of those who saw the original.

Often this sort of campaign by social media ends up as “a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. People who already agree with each other are stimulated to agree ever more vehemently only to discover the morning after the election that the people who didn’t already agree weren’t listening. However when, as in this case, the video appears to be heavy with facts and to come from a non-partisan source, it can work very well.

Time I got round to talking about the specific claims at issue. The section of the election episode of “More or Less” that I’m interested in starts at 17:35 and lasts until 23:06.

Tim Harford, the presenter, says,

“It is widely believed that the youth vote boosted the Labour party and one of the things that may well have been influencing young people were viral videos on social media. In the last few days before the election, we were contacted by a loyal listener who had seen one of these videos. It was on Facebook and it was being promoted by the Labour party. And it had received 1.4 million views.

“Unfortunately we weren’t able to get to it before the election, but these elections seem to be a bit like buses; there may well be another one along in a minute. And in any case, there’s never a bad time to talk about the truth.

“The video in question featured an event where an official from the trade union Unison, Ben Priestley, was giving a speech. Mr Priestley represents union members who work for the police or as prison officers, and he was sitting next to Shadow Cabinet minister Keir Starmer.

“Here’s a clip from the speech.”

We then hear the voice of Ben Priestley saying,

“Since 2012/13 there’s been a 29% increase in possession of weapons. This is police recorded crime. These are the crimes that the police themselves, through a rigorous process, have deemed to be crimes. A 29% increase in possession of weapons. A 65% increase in violence against the person. A 38% increase in assault with injury. Sexual offences are up 97%. Public order offences are up 54%.

“Now, if those figures weren’t shocking enough, this government which has claimed repeatedly, and also claimed in the Conservative party manifesto, that crime is falling. But nothing could actually be further from the truth. The government relies on the Crime Survey for England and Wales, which is an opinion poll which disregards homicide, it disregards sexual offences, it disregards crimes against business. It is a very, very small proportion of overall crime.

“So the government relies on those figures to tell the electorate that crime is falling, whereas recorded crime figures tell exactly the opposite story.”

Then it cuts back to Tim Harford, who says,

“Strong stuff. And Jeremy Corbyn’s twitter account tweeted a link to the speech with the text ‘Watch: national police officer Ben Priestley destroys Tory lies on crime rates.’

(Here is that video: https://www.facebook.com/JeremyCorbyn4PM/videos/1707133912914014/. Note that Ben Priestley is not a “national police officer” in the sense of being a policeman himself. He isn’t even a trade union representative for police officers, who are forbidden to join ordinary trade unions. Mr Priestley is Unison’s National Officer for Police and Justice, dealing with the workplace rights of civilian employees of the police. Whether intentionally or not, the description of him as a “national police officer” in Jeremy Corbyn’s video stream was misleading.)

Hartford continues,

“But are they lies? The accusation here is that the government is ignoring police recorded crime statistics and relying on the Crime Survey for England and Wales and that this is a lie because police recorded crime is a better measure. But that’s wrong. Neither method is perfect, but most crime stats nerds will tell you that the survey is better.

“The UK Statistics Authority looked at police recorded crime statistics in 2014 and decided that they were so unreliable that they should no longer be counted as an official national statistic. On the other hand, the Crime Survey for England and Wales is an official national statistic. It is not a small ad hoc opinion poll, it’s a nationally representative survey that measures the extent of crime by asking households whether they’ve experienced any crime in the last twelve months. In 2016/2017 approximately 50,000 households will be selected to take part in this research.

“And it’s just bizarre to suggest that it covers a very, very small proportion of overall crime because it captures more than twice as many crimes as the police data.

“But what about the shocking figures that the video quotes from the police recorded crime stats? Is that a true rise in crime or just a rise in the recording of crime? Since the Statistics Authority criticised the police recording of crime stats there’s been a big rise in the reporting of crimes that the police were not recording properly, such as low level violence and public order offences. The Office for National Statistics is very clear. They say, ‘Due to the renewed focus on the quality of crime recording by the police, this crime series is not currently believed to provide a reliable measure of trends, owing to the ensuing efforts of police forces to tighten recording practice and improve recording processes.’

“So the video suggests crime is rising by using cherry-picked, unreliable statistics, while dissing the more reliable statistics that serious policy wonks pay attention to. The true picture? Well, I think we got that from the crime policy writer Tom Gash, earlier on in our series. ”

Tom Gash then speaks, saying,

” I think what we’ve seen over the last twenty five years is this very, very steady fall in crime. Over the last two or three years we’ve certainly seen a plateauing of that fall in crime in a number of areas, but particularly in terms of serious violence.”

Back to Tim Harford, who concludes,

“These videos are important. You often see them after your friends share them, so they come with a recommendation.

“What’s interesting about this claim of Tories lying about crime figures is that Labour politicians weren’t making it in debates or in political interviews. It was made in a Facebook video of a press conference, where it was far less likely to be challenged.

“In 2010, the then Conservative shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, made a similar criticism about crime under the Labour government, using police recorded crime stats rather than the Crime Survey. But because his claims were made in a more public forum they were rebutted by the then Home Secretary Alan Johnson, and in a letter from Sir Michael Scholar, then Chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, who said, ‘I must take issue with what you said yesterday about violent crime statistics, which seems to me likely to damage public trust in official statistics.’

“But in the era of social media, all political parties can make claims that are far less likely to get properly examined – unless, of course, our loyal listeners put us on the case. ”

One might wish they had got round to following up on what their loyal listener had alerted them to before the election.

Remember it was mentioned that the man who was sitting next to Ben Priestley when he made that speech was Keir Starmer, or to give him his proper title, Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC MP? You can see him sitting on Mr Priestley’s right on the Labour video, looking at his hands and taking the odd note. Well, Keir Starmer isn’t just any old member of the Cabinet. He has specialist knowledge. Back in 2010 when the Tories made their false claims about crime statistics, he was Director of Public Prosecutions. Analyses of how the final figures for convictions were related to numbers of prosecutions and the underlying crime rates must have came across his desk almost daily. Here he is in 2013 writing for the Guardian about just these issues in relation to rape and violence against women. I find it hard to believe that as Sir Keir Starmer listened from two feet away to Ben Priestley’s claims about the National Crime Survey being merely an “opinion poll”, he did not know better, and that he did not also know that Mr Priestley’s claims about a 97% rise in sexual offences and so on were rubbish. I find it hard to believe that he did not remember from 2010 the cutting response made by the then Labour Home Secretary to similar hyped-up allegations when they came from the Tories:

Alan Johnson, the home secretary, said the British Crime Survey indicated that violent crime had fallen by 41% since 1997. “It’s one thing to make a slip-up on your figures – it’s quite another to deliberately mislead.”

Yet he remained silent. Is he happy to be associated with this video?

The uncertainty principle in violence blame mechanics

Sometimes one is privileged to witness the discovery of a law of science.

Δl Δm > M

Six years ago I wrote a post called “Two contrasting articles by Michael Tomasky on spree killers”. In that post I compared an article Mr Tomasky wrote in January 2011 after the attempted murder of (Democratic) Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the course of a spree killing carried out by Jared Loughner (“In the US, where hate rules at the ballot box, this tragedy has been coming for a long time”), to another article written by him in November 2009, just after the mass killing at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Hasan (“American, for better or worse”).

Regarding Hasan, Mr Tomasky was of the opinion that “We have much more to learn about Hasan before we can jump to any conclusions” and “We should assume until it’s proven otherwise that Hasan was an American and a loyal one, who just snapped”.

Regarding Loughner, Tomasky felt much more able to draw immediate conclusions. He wrote, “You don’t have to believe that alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, is a card-carrying Tea Party member (he evidently is not) to see some kind of connection between that violent rhetoric and what happened in Arizona on Saturday” and “So what particular type of nut is Loughner? We don’t have a full picture yet. But we have enough of one. His coherent ravings included the conviction that the constitution assured him that “you don’t have to accept the federalist laws”. He called a female classmate who had an abortion a ‘terrorist'”.

Forgive the lengthy prologue. I was prompted to write this post by the fact that Mr Tomasky has now added a third article to the series, concerning the attempted murder of Congressman Steve Scalise and other Republicans by James Hodgkinson: “One Left-Wing Gunman Doesn’t Make a Movement”. He is back to a state of unknowing.

We may never know about James Hodgkinson’s mental state in the days and hours leading up to his horrifying attack Wednesday morning, since he’s dead. We know that he was left wing, a comparative rarity for a political assassin in the United States these days.

And

But it’s my hunch that Hodgkinson was not part of any broader movement.

In quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.”

A similar principle may be discerned in the field of “violence blame mechanics”, an emerging field of political science. The complementary variables in this case are Δl, the uncertainty of left-protectnedness, and Δm, the uncertainty of motivation for violence. “Left-protectedness” can be manifested as actually holding left wing beliefs or as belonging to a group regarded as oppressed by the left, such as Muslims or dark skinned people.

In layman’s language, the more certainty there is that a perpetrator of violence held a left wing position or belonged to a left wing protected class, the less certain it is possible to be about his motives. Thus the very act of seeing that the Facebook page of James T. Hodgkinson included a Bernie Sanders banner and the words “Democratic Socialism explained in 3 words” makes it impossible to know his motives.

“Uncertainty of motive” can also be reformulated as “time before it is proper to speculate on motive” by a simple mathematical transformation, with tm tending to zero in the case of Loughner and infinity in the cases of Hasan and Hodgkinson. This explains the apparent contradiction of how it was improper to guess at Nidal Hasan’s motives before trial despite the widely reported fact that survivors heard him shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he fired, but that when it came to Jared Loughner Mr Tomasky felt that we had enough of a picture the day after the attack.

In tribute to the clarity with which his writings have demonstrated the concept, I had thought of calling this law “Tomasky’s uncertainty principle” but, as so often in the history of science, the same discovery has been made by several different researchers. It is a crowded field. To establish priority, readers are invited to submit examples where a particular author has demonstrated his or her understanding of the principle by citing multiple articles showing it in operation for different values of Δl and Δm.

Meanwhile, may I suggest that we should name the equivalent of Planck’s constant in a way that does justice to the collective nature of the development of this principle. Let us call it M, the Media constant. Thus the law can be stated in mathematical form as Δl Δm > M. I have added this equation to the top of the post.

Edit: I must draw your attention to the very cogent objections raised by Moore, L. (2017):

If “the complementary variables in this case are Δl, the uncertainty of left-protectnedness, and Δm, the uncertainty of motivation for violence” then the first variable isn’t really the degree of certainty that a perpetrator of violence held a left wing position or belonged to a left wing protected class, but the degree of certainty as to whether a perpetrator of violence held a left wing position or belonged to a left wing protected class.

And then of course the whole Tomasky uncertainty principle collapses in a heap, because if we know for sure that a perpetrator of violence is a right winger we have zero uncertainty about whether the perpetrator of violence held a left wing position or belonged to a left wing protected class. This should mean the uncertainty of motive is infinitely large. But it isn’t. It’s zero. If we know for sure that if the perp was a rightie, we know for sure the motive was rightiness.

I suspect what we have here is Tomasky’s exclusion principle, derived not from Heisenberg, but from Pauli. Left wing motives and violence turn out to be identical Graunions, which cannot occupy the same quantum state at the same time. They simply cannot co-exist in one event. The one excludes the other.

To err is human, to fisk divine

Tim Newman does a fine job of fisking at length an article by Rachel Nuwer on the BBC (natch!) titled: How western civilisation could collapse.

Spoiler alert:

Tim is not impressed…

Here’s my suggestion: allow British citizens to keep their money in their pockets instead of forcing them to shell out £3bn per year for the BBC to publish garbage like this. A more humane gesture I cannot imagine at this juncture.

Read the whole thing.

The end of the rule of law in Turkey… and the perils of political labels

After reading an unrelentingly grim article by Suzy Hansen, describing the collapse of the rule of law in Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016, I noticed one problem with what had been written.

I recalled a dinner in Istanbul with a couple bon vivant UN diplomats, less than a week before the abortive uprising. During our congenial discussions, fuelled by some excellent Turkish craft beer, the three of us realised that we were using terms like ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘conservative’ to mean rather different things as we were British, Turkish and Czech respectively. By Turkish definitions, as I was neither religious nor nationalist, I was automatically on the left, regardless of the fact I am a laissez faire free trader. The Turkish chap ‘assigned’ me to the centre-left, to differentiate me from socialists or communists… it seemed vastly amusing at the time (of course that might have been the beer laughing).

Although Suzy Hansen’s linked article in the New York Times is not without merit, this made me realise how unwise she was to bandy about terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ when describing Turkey to an American readership: the bad guys of the article are on the right, so perhaps some US readers might conclude Erdogan’s AKP are something like the Republicans? Er, not really. In fact not in the slightest. Given the radically different cultural, political and historical frames of reference between the USA and Turkey, there are simply no meaningful analogies to be made other than at the far fringes.

It is rather hazy what ‘left’ and ‘right’ mean in Britain or America these days, let alone what they mean elsewhere. Comparing political labels in different countries is always fraught with risk and more likely to confuse than enlighten. Michael Jennings of this parish often becomes exasperated when folk in London try to compare UK and Australian political parties, as the attempt usually falls at the second fence… and this is between two countries with vastly more shared history.

Call that an attack on the press? This is an attack on the press

In 1917, as this cutting shows, the German navy shelled Margate and Broadstairs. Nothing strange in that, you might think, they had done much worse to Scarborough and Great Yarmouth.

The Times 27 February 1917 p6. Right click for the whole article.

However, this raid was a bit different. Far from causing general mayhem and tweaking the tail of the Royal Navy, on this occasion the target was one man: Lord Northcliffe, proprietor of The Times, The Daily Mail and – I kid you not – The Daily Mirror. Not that you would know it from this heavily censored report.

Northcliffe had attracted the ire of the German government by – apparently, I get little impression of this from The Times itself – being the main cheerleader of anti-German and pro-War sentiment in Britain. In 1918, doubtless aided by the Kaiser’s ringing, if unintentional, endorsement, Northcliffe became Britain’s Director of Propaganda.

I appreciate that in writing this article I may be giving the God-Emperor some ideas. So, Donald, if you’re reading, just remember: sailing a battleship up the Hudson, shelling the New York Times building and turning it into a smoking pile of rubble just so you can wipe the smile off the faces of a bunch of smug, arrogant, conceited, snobbish, self-satisfied, aloof, out-of-touch, blockheaded, group-thinking, bubble-dwelling, histrionic, paranoid, lying, devious, dissembling, childish, cry-baby, bitter, vindictive, divisive, conspiratorial, freedom-hating, progress-denying communists… is not nice.

It may even be wrong.

Samizdata quote of the day

This is what the British Broadcasting Corporation considers front page news.

Rather, who was for decades one of the best known and most trusted figures in US journalism, said in a Facebook post: “Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now.”

What the BBC doesn’t tell us is that this “most trusted figure” saw his career come to an abrupt end when he was fired by CBS for pushing a false story about George W. Bush’s service record which was based on forged documents.

Tim Newman

Samizdata quote of the day

“Ministers are regularly put under pressure for not spending enough. It is very rare to hear Ministers under pressure for spending too much, for presiding over government waste, for failing to find cheaper and better ways of doing things. There is nearly always an automatic assumption that spending a lot in any specific part of the public sector is good, and spending more is even better. There is little probing behind the slogans to find out what the real numbers are, and to ask why in some cases so much is spent to so little good effect.”

– Former minister, and Conservative MP, John Redwood. He is talking about the different biases of the BBC. His point about how BBC journalists and programmes routinely take a pro-public spending line in questions to government ministers, lobbyists and the like is very true. Watch any regular news show, either national or regional, and note those times when a minister is given a hard time for spending too much, or spending on X or Y at all. They don’t happen very often.

In retrospect

It is reported in the Guardian that the career of a noted creative artist is coming to an end.

… the offences of Phil Shiner, the human rights lawyer who has just been struck off by the solicitors’ disciplinary tribunal, are worse even than they appear at first sight. It is hard to comprehend the nightmare faced by British soldiers he wrongly accused of torture and murder in Iraq. But he did not only fail those he traduced in court. He failed Iraqis who believed they had a case; he failed genuine victims of abuse who will face a harder fight in future. And his dishonesty and deception, and the bringing of baseless cases, risks tainting the whole case for human rights.

There is quite a bit to agree with in this editorial, but the insouciance of the writer takes my breath away. Will the Guardian, so long his leading patron and publicist, be holding a retrospective exhibition of its own extensive Phil Shiner back catalogue?

Samizdata quote of the day

After a brief pause, he relayed a recent anecdote, from the set of a network show, that was even more terrifying: The production was shooting a scene in the foyer of a law firm, which the lead rushed into from the rain to utter some line that this screenwriter had composed. After an early take, the director yelled “Cut,” and this screenwriter, as is customary, ambled off to the side with the actor to offer a comment on his delivery. As they stood there chatting, the screenwriter noticed that a tiny droplet of rain remained on the actor’s shoulder. Politely, as they spoke, he brushed it off. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an employee from the production’s wardrobe department rushed over to berate him. “That is not your job,” she scolded. “That is my job.”

The screenwriter was stunned. But he had also worked in Hollywood long enough to understand what she was really saying: quite literally, wiping rain off an actor’s wardrobe was her job—a job that was well paid and protected by a union. And as with the other couple of hundred people on set, only she could perform it.

This raindrop moment, and the countless similar incidents that I’ve observed on sets or heard about from people I’ve met in the industry, may seem harmless and ridiculous enough on its face. But it reinforces an eventuality that seems both increasingly obvious and uncomfortable—one that might occur to you every time you stream Fringe or watch a former ingénue try to re-invent herself as a social-media icon or athleisure-wear founder: Hollywood, as we once knew it, is over.

Nick Bilton

Samizdata quote of the day

The difference of course, is that in the US, they have a choice of who to watch and listen to, but in the UK, the massive public subsidy kills off any commercial competition to the BBC. So they (and the clone like politics in public subsided Channel 4) have a virtual monopoly on “intellectual” programming. Indeed, “intellectuals”, meaning a few politicians and academics have a channel devoted to brainwashing them: Radio 4. The result is that our “elite” (as they see themselves) are so completely brain-washed by the BBC hate filled bile, that they just inherently adopt the attitudes of the BBC and cannot fathom why anyone could complain when they parrot the brainwashed propaganda.

Scottish Sceptic

Samizdata quote of the day

Trump knows that the press isn’t trusted very much, and that the less it’s trusted, the less it can hurt him. So he’s prodding reporters to do things that will make them less trusted, and they’re constantly taking the bait.

They’re taking the bait because they think he’s dumb, and impulsive, and lacking self-control — but he’s the one causing them to act in ways that are dumb and impulsive, and demonstrate lack of self-control. As Richard Fernandez writes on Facebook, they think he’s dumb because they think he has lousy taste, but there are a lot of scarily competent guys out there in the world who like white and gold furniture. And, I should note, Trump has more media experience than probably 99% of the people covering him. (As Obama operative Ben Rhodes gloated with regard to selling a dishonest story on the Iran deal, the average reporter the Obama White House dealt with “is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns.” In Rhodes’ words, “they literally know nothing.”)

Glenn Reynolds

Thoughts on an open letter to Trump

Instapundit just linked to something calling itself An open letter to Trump from the Press Corps. I clicked on the link, because I thought it might be a masterpiece of self-parody. It is.

No comments allowed on the open letter itself, but I clicked on the Instapundit comment thread, suspecting that there might be some entertaining and quite well crafted abuse to enjoy. Again, I was not disappointed.

An odd thing about this open letter is that it seems so lacking in the very knowledge which you might expect the “Editor in Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review” to know quite a lot about, namely how the technological context of journalism has altered in recent years. He says to Trump: You need us to say nice things about you! You need us to get your messages across! But everything that Trump has said and done since he first got into his stride as a seemingly long-shot candidate has said, right back at them: “No, I don’t.”

It will be interesting to see if Trump’s current anti-social media heckling of his Obama-worshipping media opponents keeps happening. I suspect that he’ll start being more polite to them, but only if and when they start being more polite to him. But that could just be wishful thinking on my part.

More generally, one of the things I notice about effective people, including me at those times in my life when I have been effective, is that effective people often do things that they “can’t” do, but which actually, they can do, and which if they do do will serve their purposes very well. “You can’t do that” actually only means that until now you couldn’t do that. And it often also means: Now that you can do that and now that you are doing it, we want you to stop.

Until recently, no President of the USA could tweet back at his media critics, very quickly and cheaply and easily, without in any way having to beg from them any right to reply to their criticisms, and without irritating anyone else who isn’t interested. Now, the President can. The claim that he shouldn’t, because “proper Presidents don’t behave like that” needs him to be persuaded of this claim. But if ignoring this claim is a major reason for his effectiveness, why would he be persuaded?