Dec. 14th, 2008

peterbirks: (Default)
It's something of a given truth that PR people are loathsome. The sad thing is, the horror of the job means that they tend to get paid more than do journalists. Some (decent) journalists occasionally take the King's Shilling, only to come rushing back to lower wages in the journalism sector when they realize that all the bad news that they had heard about the world that is PR was actually an understatement.

What is not often realized is that PR people are also stupid. In fact a pre-frontal lobotomy is actually seen as a plus if you put it on your CV when applying for a PR post.

Because they are stupid, they are also innumerate. Now, innumeracy is not confined just to stupid people in the world. Indeed, I am constantly amazed at the number of journalists who seem to wear their innumeracy as abadge of pride.

I once received a press release claiming a 114% increase in something or other. I checked the original document and noted the phrase "114% of...". Unable to resist it (just this once), I telephoned the PR person concerned.

"You refer to a 114% increase."

"Yes"

"But the original document says "114% of"".

"Yes".

"So how much would a 14% increase be?"

"Er.."


The Home Office PR donkeys used their spades to dig Jacqui in a bit deeper last Thursday. The history goes a bit like this.

To its credit, the Government has set up a system that attempts to restore the public's faith in official statistics. This is because, over the years of Blair spin, official statiistics suffered "brand dilution". Or, to put it more bluuntly, so much bollocks was put out that no-one took any notice of anything the government claimed were "facts".

Unfortunately, most PR people (see above) are stupid and innumerate. So when they got the opportunity to publish figures that showed a drop in admissions to hospitals as a result of knife crimes, nothing so irritating as official government policy was going to get in their way.

"the number of teenagers admitted to hospital for knife or sharp instrument wounding in nine...police force areas fell by 27% according to new figures published today" said the Home Office release (http://press.homeoffice.gov.uk/press-releases/Tackling-knives-six-months-on)


This caused Sir Michael Scholar, chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, to write a funing letter to Jeremy Heywood, Permanent Secretary at the Prime Minister's Office, in which he wrote:
It has been reported to me by the National Statistician's Office that officials or advisers in No. 10 Downing Street caused the Home Office to issue a press release which prematurely published provisional statistics for hospital admissions for knife or sharp instrument wounding.


and
The statisticians who produced them, together with the National Statistician, tried unsuccessfully to prevent their premature, irregular and selective release.

He concluded that
I am copying this letter to the Cabinet Secretary and to (Sir) David Normington at the Home Office.


Of course, you may remember David Normington, the career civil servant from Bradford (married to a career civil servant) who thinks it's ok to call in the police to take away MPs' computers and the like because the Home Office has been leaking like a sieve.


Normington gets on with Jacqui Smith, with whom he worked at the Department of Education. It will be interesting to see how the duo react to the latest fuck-up, whereby incompetents at the Home Office seem to be rivalling the House of Commons Speaker and Serjeant-At-Arms in their inability to say "no" to bullies. The Home Office, when asked by Number 10 to issue a press release that so obviously breached guidelines, could have said "no". But Jacqui does not come from a "no" culture. That's how she got to be Home Secretary. She's a modest woman with much to be modest about.

The most galling thing about the press release is that it is statistically unsound -- gibberish that Jacqui Smith was quite happy to be quoted repeating:
More people are being stopped and searched, fewer knives are being found and if you do carry a knife you are three times more likely to be sent to prison
she said.

You can view the original "fact sheet" here http://press.homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/Tackling_Knives_Action_Prog1.pdf?view=Binary

The percentage drops do not give actual numbers in some cases (although they do in others). The periods compared change from point to point (one compares with the same period last year, one compares October figures to June figures). But the main point is, quite simply, that this programme is not scheduled to be completed until March 2009. To say that a programme is "working" when it hasn't even finished is just not on.


Keen to carry on digging, Permanent Secretary at Number 10 Jeremy Heywood, admitted that:

"The government was making a series of announcements about this issue and felt its case would be put better if it could publish these numbers."


So, it's nothing to do with disseminating information, and everything to do with "putting the government's case".

I mean, we all knew that anyway, but it's strange to hear a senior civil servant admitting it.

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