GE2015 minus 03: does the truth even matter any more?

Posted: 4 May 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , ,

I’m always surprised when people don’t know that political adverts are exempted from normal advertising rules, specifically those regarding truth and accuracy. I’m sadly much less surprised at the verbal calisthenics performed by some to excuse falsehoods when it comes to politics. 

I entered this period of election campaigning pretty convinced that the most dangerous people involved were those who’ll never admit to their ‘side’ doing anything wrong. They’ll constantly greet any attack upon their party or union or protest group with criticism aimed at the attacker, ignoring accuracy and truth in an attempt to do damage to their arguments. They’re blind to evidence and dead to argument. They’re the sort of people who think that their party would solve all of society’s ills if they were only allowed to do whatever they wanted, without opponents getting in the way, all opposey and stuff.

To be fair, it’s at the extremes of British politics that these people flourish: the supporters of UKIP or TUSC or the EDL or Socialist Worker; everything is someone else’s fault, and if only the people would listen, then they’d see that [insert party of choice] have all the answers. But the mainstream parties aren’t immune from this. The Conservative party has its supporters who think that the 2007-8 crash only affected the UK because Labour fucked everything up and we’d have been just fine and dandy if only there’d been a Tory government in power. And Labour has their own activists who think that had Labour been in power the past five years, then everything would have been ok and no-one deserving or in need would have suffered. At all. But for both Labour and Conservatives, there are only a relatively few people who take this attitude. More often, people do see the faults in their own side… and then excuse them, either because the other side is “worse” or because they take solace in an adaptation of Stephen Decatur’s line from the late 18th Century: “my party right or wrong, but my party”.

And every party has people like this; the mainstream parties in this instance are no less prone to it than the extremists. They’re the kind of people who disdain acuracy as long as they make a point. They’re the people who’ll willingly throw caution to the wind, abandon truth and fact as long as a ‘point’ is made. And woe betide you if you dare to query them. And this isn’t even ‘politican maths’, which I’ll deal with later in this post. This is just plain not giving a shit about the truth as long as you get to make your point.

It’s pretty well universally acknowledged that ATOS’s administration of health assessments for Employment and Support Allowance was a disaster; successful appeals against the assessments skyrocketed and there’s numerous examples of anecdotal and other evidence of unfairness and just plain negligence. But a while back, a statistic started doing the rounds that surprised and horrified even the most ardent supporters of the scheme: 10,600 people had died within six weeks of their claims ending.

I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t be disgusted by such a claim. I’m disgusted by such a claim, but not because of the 10,600 people who’ve died but because there’s more than emnough evidence to show that it’s just not true. What’s worse? The statistic, or knowingly using the deaths of 10,600 people to spread a falsehood?

Ah, but I hear you say – or I would as soon as Microsoft or Google invent real time aural commenting – “doesn’t the DWP itself admit that 10,600 people died within six weeks of their claim ending?” Yep, they sure do. In this document. So, what’s the problem? Well, as Tom Chivers among others pointed out in a superb piece, 10,600 number isn’t the number of people who died within six weeks after their claim ended. It includes people who died and then their claim ended… because they’d died. Now, given that a number of people were on the allowance suffered from seriously physical or mental disability, it’s not the hugest surprise to discover that some died while receiving the allowance. How many? No idea – the DWP document doesn’t separate then out. Could have been 5,000, could have been 10,599. No-one knows. The only thing we know for absolutely sure is that some of those 10,600 died before their claim ended, which by an elegant inevitability tells us that of the 10,600 people who died within six weeks of their claim ending, far fewer died after their claim ended. Again, how many? No definitive number; could have been 1,000, could have been 5,000.

And here’s where it gets ugly, because the moment you point that out, you start getting attacked by those who are so angry at the system, so [rightly] angry at any deaths, that they jettison truth and accuracy and say that it doesn’t matter whether the number’s accurate or not, and by insisting on accuracy, you don’t care about those who have died.

It’s because I care about those who’ve died that I think it’s important to use accurate numbers, numbers that supporters of ESA health assessments can’t attack. Chivers was attacked for daring to bring that wrong statistic to people’s attention. Doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Here’s another claim that’s done the rounds lately: one million people have visited food banks. You’ve probably seen the statistic. If true, that’s an indictment of the government that’s impossible to defend. Except of course it’s not true. But the moment you point that out, as I have, you get people saying “oh, so if it’s half a million. You’re ok with that are you?”  No, I’m bloody not; I’m pissed off and angry as hell that half a million people have to use food banks. But at least I’m pissed off and angry because of an accurate number. How about you?

As I wrote some time ago 

I may be a heretic here but I don’t want my representatives in parliament to be humourless robots; I want them to be human, and that means that, occasionally, they’ll laugh at a witticism or funny comment. And not only at their opponent’s discomfort. Sometimes a genuinely funny comment is made in the chamber; it happens more often than you’d think. 

OK – here’s a picture of George Osborne and David Cameron laughing on the government front benches. Yeah, I know, I’m sorry. You might have to drink to forget that image, but I’ve put it there for a reason. No, not for you to have an excuse to drink to forget that image. Well, not wholly.

Anyway, there’s Prime Minister and The Chancellor of the Exchequer laughing during a debate about… Well, you don’t know, do you? It could be about something deadly serious or it could be questions to the Leader of the House about suggested debates. The comment could have been a political point scored against Ed Balls or it could merely be that someone farted in the chamber. But if someone tweeted that picture and said “Look, this is from today’s debate about food banks! See how the Tories laugh at poverty”, it’d go round Twitter tweeted and retweeted as gospel.

Finally, my sympathy even stretches to Michael Gove. Only for one thing, mind you, since I think he was a disastrous Secretary of State for Education and is not exactly shaping up to be even a half decent Whip. But let’s attack him for what he’s done recently, not for stuff he did before he was even an MP. It’s similar to my views on the Daily Mail: daft to constantly bring up the Mail’s support for fascism 80 years ago (!) when there’s so much to attack the paper for now.

So, Michael Gove. There’s a pic that’s been doing the rounds for the past year or so. Here it is:

If true, it would be a horrible thing for a politician to say, let alone a Secretary of State for Education. But he didn’t say it as Secretary of State for Education; he wrote it in a piece for the Times when he was a working journalist, before he even became an MP. And yet the pic states – or at least heavily implies – that he said it as a politician. That’s just flat wrong, and indefensible. It’s certainly fine to ask Gove whether he still thinks that, and then to attack his view if he confirms that. But there’s no way it’s fair to suggest he said it as a representative of government.

A picture tells a thousand words; nowhere, however, does it say the words are accurate.

My point being that if you’re going to criticise politicians and policies, then do so from a position of knowledge and accuracy. Otherwise the moral ground upon which you stand ain’t only hit ‘high’, it’s substantially lower than those you’re attacking. 

I can’t think of a single instance in which using a false statistic or misattributing a quote, or indeed, misquoting, brings anything beneficial to the table. If the truth is inconvenient or the unaltered facts don’t back your case, then maybe, just maybe, it’s your case that’s at fault. 

So many people have rightly criticised this government for playing fast and loose with the facts that you’d think the people making those attacks would feel it incumbent upon themselves to make sure their facts were straight, wouldn’t you? Ah, if only. 

Meanwhile, here’s Mitch Benn on governments not paying due regard to the evidence. 

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Comments
  1. The Times recently printed an apology for getting things wrong. On an inside page it said that the headline, the Labour would cost every family £1,000, was wrong. They had used the wrong number. The headline was on page 1 just below the masthead and the apology was page 9.

    I say this because the job of newspapers is to sell newspapers. It’s not about truth. When the Sunday Sport was published one of the first editions said “B52 found on the moon”. The following week “It’s gone”.

    The US has Fox News that claimed Birmingham was 100% muslim. Barak Obama was (apparently) a non-american muslim.

    It goes on.

    The jobs of Fox News is to sell advertising. The job of The Times is to make money for the shareholders. Suggesting the truth should be involved is a quaint old fashioned view of journalism.

    The role of political parties is to get elected. The Conservative Party has always been an efficient election machine. Only classic issues that involve ‘banging on about Europe’ have diverted it from winning. The Labour Party decided that it was sick of having principles and losing so after Neil Kinnock it decided to stop all that. The LibDems decided they wanted a bit of the action so they were prepared to deal with anyone who would give them a seat at the big table.

    Political parties are not in the business of truth. There in the business of winning and gaining power. If you want political argument then you wont see that at an election. Sorry.

    • As I recall, we’ve had this discussion before, Steve. I still think that if you’re advancing an argument, political or otherwise, it’s an obligation to use accurate statistics and if you don’t, you’ve lost any moral authority in attacking others for telling lies about your own lot.

      • I dont believe I accused anyone of telling the truth. If you had the impression I was making a positive mark towards the truth you would be incorrect. My position is once the election is out of the way then the politics can begin.

        • No, I know you weren’t. However, this campaign (in common with so many others) has been full of accusations that one party or another is lying; whether it’s what they’ll cut, what they’ll borrow, who they’ll do deals with… the list goes on.

          I think it’s necessary to make sure your own house is in order before you (not you) accuse others of lying.

    • It may be quaint and old-fashioned, but the hope persists in any case.

  2. Mark Slade says:

    I recently had a detailed look at that 10,600 stat, and I agree with you that it doesn’t give enough detail to be quoted politically, so I haven’t – there are plenty of other (accurate) stats around to hammer the coalition with!

    What’s of interest is the DWP illegally refusing to publish any of these claimant death stats beyond 2011 – they’ve finally lost their legal battle on it (last week?), but have delayed it long enough to ensure that it doesn’t hit before Thursday, a disgrace I think.

    Another example of government “data burying” is the Universal Credit IT system. Amazing amounts of money have been spent on building *2* versions of it – the first one failed but they couldn’t write it off as it would then appear on the books, so they’ve kept it going while they build another one from scratch which still isn’t good enough to use en-masse. Again they’ve delayed the release of the data on it, but it’s expected to have been a £750m spend already for a system that doesn’t deliver.

    • Couldn’t agree more that there are more than enough accurate stats with which to hammer the coalition government. Which is why I get so damned angry when people use inaccurate ones. They’re salting the battlefield for those of us who rely on accuracy.

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