Your location:

It’s not the voluntary code, it is the PCC that’s the problem, stupid.

    Watchdogs need watching, regardless.  Lost in debate over regulation versus a free and independent press is the detail of human failure. Last week we heard that safeguards intended to protect individuals from unnecessary and illegal surveillance, though statutory, had been completely ineffectual. A report on the working of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act revealed that, "The highly secretive IPT, the main complaints body under RIPA, has only dealt with 1,100 complaints since RIPA began. In the last decade, it has only upheld 10 complaints five of which were from the same household.”

    Scrutiny of the voluntary body, the Press Complaints Commission, is also long overdue.  Its activity might win it brownie points with 4272 complaints concerning lapses of accuracy and accountability so far this year. But its results do not, with only 13 of them upheld (a number and ratio like RIPA’s that beggar’s belief) as does its enjoining of complainants to respect the privacy of the process.

    Two recent decisions (of the 4259 decisions not upheld) are enough to question the PCC’s ‘fitness for purpose’: their competence to distinguish between proper and improper use of statistics, between opinion, conjecture and fact.

    Back in June the Financial Times published a ‘comment’ piece – or polemic – on drugs legalisation by Martin Wolf. “We should end our war on drugs” it began, for, “in the 10 years to 2008, according to the UN, global use of opiates has risen by 34.5 per cent, of cocaine by 27 per cent and of cannabis by 8.5 per cent.” “If this is a successful policy”, Wolf asked “what would a failed one look like?”

    Only his figures were not according to the UN (as pointed out in a previous blog and CPS Factsheet.)  They did not reflect UNODC measures of drug use prevalence – the yardsticks that ensure consistent trend measurement from which comparisons can be drawn.  The UN had published no such figures and did not recognize them when asked - by us.  Martin Wolf had taken the figures, and their attribution, on trust from a body that did not even exist ten months ago, but one he seemed very taken by.  The repository of this trust – the self appointed ‘Global Commission on Drug Policy’, a drugs legalisation lobby generously backed by Richard Branson, a self confessed drug user and George Soros, the multi billionaire ‘open society’ and legalisation campaigner, turned out to have been ‘creative’ with the data.

    Armed with the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime’s detailed explanation of how the Global Commission had manipulated UN sourced cocaine and opiate prevalence data in order to demonstrate rises which were virtually zero for the period in question, a complaint was lodged with the Press Complaints Commission. Game, set and match to the complainant, you’d think?  But no.  The PCC became the voice of the FT’s defence and startlingly ruled there had been no breach of the accuracy code.

    The PCC confidently maintained that, “the Global Commission’s interpretation of the data was not flawed, but merely reflected a different method of calculating the figures” (my italics).  Indeed.  A method that would not pass muster in an undergraduate use of statistics exam.  “The newspaper does not consider that the discrepancy in the two sets of figures is significant,” it pronounced. Since when were disparities of 34% and 27% not significant? To parrot Martin Wolf’s line, if this was accurate, what does inaccurate look like?

    The FT, the PCC stated, “considers the Global Commission on Drug Policy to be a reliable source”. And, conveniently, it agreed with them: “the Global Commission on Drug Policy was a reputable source on which the newspaper was entitled to rely”. Why and on what grounds it did not say, though this body (lobby) is of no academic, official or historic standing. 

    The newspaper, it submitted, had taken care not to publish inaccurate information. Had it?  For the PCC understood there was no dispute that the numbers were based on UN figures (there was – the UNODC had clearly dissociated themselves from these figures) only on the method of calculation. It ruled that readers would not have been significantly mislead. How could they not be?  It also astonishingly commented it was an opinion piece, as if that excused use of misleading and misrepresentative data.

    Newspapers have printed corrections when figures they reported from another organization turned out to be wrong. Full Fact pointed us to a comparable complaint from Carbon Brief about figures cited as Government estimates but taken from the Global Warming Policy Foundation on how much green taxes were adding to energy bills,.  The Daily Mail duly printed a correction.  Not so the FT.  Yet its retrospective online correction (Wolf’s figures referred to the number of drug users they corrected, not to drug use) though disingenuous was indeed an admission of error.  That it avoided the FT explaining why this apparently ‘technical’ difference left Wolf’s case in tatters presumably passed the PCC by.

    Perhaps then we should not have been surprised to see the same misleading statistics and selective use of UNODC data published by the FT within weeks of the first complaint.  This time the authors of a lengthy news feature, Latin America: A Toxic Trade reported ‘an estimated’ 272 million users of illegal drugs world wide in support of their failed ‘war on drugs’ thesis. That this figure represented the very upper end of the World Drug Report’s estimated range was not mentioned (the bottom end being 149 million, as set out in the World Drug Report). Similarly from a range of 104,000 to 263,000 estimated drug death.  A complaint was duly sent to the PCC.  Surprise, surprise. For the clearly innumerate PCC, the figures ‘fell within the range’ of the World Drug Report source, so were OK; a source the PCC judged however that the newspaper/report was not obliged to cite, a source that, but for the link sent by the complainant, the PCC would have  remained unaware of.

    Nowhere did the systematic exclusion of data and tables that contradicted the author’s case and inclusion of skewed data and tables, breach the accuracy code according to the PCC.  It was an ‘opinion piece’ (despite coming across as a news feature) so it was not misleading. Effectively their ruling gave carte blanche to the paper’s writers to be as creative with the data as they want.

    It is such lapses in accuracy and accountability that undermine the critical role played by the free press in democratic society; which allow newspapers and their readers alike to be fooled.

    Thus the Global Commission will get away with their spurious ‘methodology note’ -  added since the CPS called for clarification.  Their estimates, they now submit, are as reliable as the UNODC’s, never mind that they diverge from standard practice of measuring (and tracking) drug use as a proportion of the population, preferring absolute numbers (so much more effective for persuading credible politicians and reporters). And a unilateral upward adjustment of figures is OK too, on planet Global Commission, if you chose to believe, as they do, that UNODC is subject to “downward pressures on the estimates submitted by governments.”

    All the while that inconvenient truth, the decline of the world largest cocaine market – that of the US – by 75% in the last 25 years - remains ignored.

     The PCC’s new Chairman, Lord Hunt, has said, "my job is to ensure we create in due course an effective, genuinely independent standards body, which enjoys the overwhelming respect and support of the media, our political leaders and the general public." But it won’t enjoy it unless it gets a proper grip on statistics and is prepared to become unpopular in the process.

    Kathy Gyngell has a first class honours degree in social anthropology from Cambridge and an Oxford M.Phil. in sociology. She has worked for the former ITV companies, LWT and TV-am as a producer and senior programme executive. A full time mother after the birth of her second son, she founded the voluntary organization Full Time Mothers.

    Be the first to make a comment

    Centre for Policy Studies will not publish your email address or share it with anyone.

    Please note, for security reasons we read all comments before publishing.