Setting the record straight: factchecking the UK press
On the subjects I write about most – immigration, labour markets, welfare – the British press frequently gets things wrong, sometimes very wrong. Since I think my position as Director of NIESR gives me both an opportunity and a responsibility to try to improve the quality of public debate on these issues, I do my best to redress the balance. Mostly that’s by blogging, twitter or media commentary. But sometimes, when it’s simply a question of fact, what is really required is not a counterargument, but a correction.
On the subjects I write about most – immigration, labour markets, welfare – the British press frequently gets things wrong, sometimes very wrong. Since I think my position as Director of NIESR gives me both an opportunity and a responsibility to try to improve the quality of public debate on these issues, I do my best to redress the balance. Mostly that’s by blogging, twitter or media commentary. But sometimes, when it’s simply a question of fact, what is really required is not a counterargument, but a correction. That is where the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) comes in, or it should.
Ironically, or perhaps not, the PCC (which will be replaced in September by the new Independent Press Standards Organisation) gets a bad press. But in my dealings with them I’ve found the staff to be professional, patient and helpful, even when dealing with newspaper staff whose journalistic ethics and/or basic arithmetical skills leave much to be desired.
Some people think that complaining to the PCC is pointless, either because they think the process is hopelessly biased in favour of the newspaper, or because they think an ex post correction, perhaps not much read, matters little compared to the original error. I disagree; over the past three years, I’ve complained to the PCC eight times; in each case the result has been a published correction by the newspaper concern (online or in hard copy).
More importantly, I can state confidently that journalists really hate admitting that they got it wrong, and newspapers really hate publishing corrections that admit their journalists got it wrong, even if the corrections aren’t much read. As a consequence, having to print a correction means they are more likely to get it right next time. Moreover, if the error was the result of the journalist printing misinformation (deliberate or incompetence) coming from a politician/Special Advisor or a pressure group like Migration Watch, as is the case for several of the examples below, then the journalist is less likely to believe them, and more likely to check, next time.
So I do think it’s worth doing: if you see an error, complain, to the PCC or to IPSO when it is established. The process is relatively straightforward. The key is to make complaints strictly factual, and backed up by references to the relevant facts and statistics, from official sources if possible.
Here, for the record, and to illustrate the sort of errors that can be corrected, are the eight examples. I’ll start with the general factual ones and save the ones relating to me, or NIESR, to the end. In each case there’s a link to the PCC summary and/or correction.
1. The Daily Mail’s claim that Birmingham residents claimed a total of £2.7 billion a year in JSA, about 15 times the correct figure. The same article included a less obvious error, which the newspaper attributed to a DWP Special Advisor, that the number of workless households “increased during the boom years”. PCC summary here.
2. The Prime Minister’s assertion, in the Daily Telegraph, that the number of workless households “doubled during the boom years”, when in fact it fell. The Prime Minister first made this mistake in Parliament, but it’s one thing to get your facts wrong off the cuff, and another to write it in an article which should have been properly checked (and it wasn’t the only error in the article either). PCC summary here. You can’t blame the Telegraph for assuming the PM (or at least his civil servants) would get the facts right, but their initial response to the PCC (which claimed that workless households did not, in fact, mean households without anyone currently in work) was one of the silliest things I’ve read this year.
3. Migration Watch’s claim, reported in the Daily Telegraph, that “150,000 employees from Eastern Europe pay £1 per week in net tax”. Not only did Migration Watch pluck this number out of thin air, their own report contradicted it, as the Telegraph worked out when they actually read it. PCC summary here.
4. The Daily Mail also reported Migration Watch’s made up numbers. Moreover, they further confused matters by ignoring the fact that migrants, like other low-paid workers, pay more in indirect taxes (like VAT) than in income tax/National Insurance. Like the Telegraph, the Mail blamed the errors on Migration Watch, which is not unreasonable, but newspapers should check “facts”, particularly when they come from a less than reliable source.
5. I wrote three years ago about why talking about all, or most “new jobs” going to immigrants was nonsense. It hasn’t stopped the press from continuing to make this mistake though. Praise, therefore, for the Standard, which has just published a very full and accurate correction on this point. Let’s hope other papers follow suit.
6. Matthew Parris, in the Times, decided to write about how all economic forecasters get everything wrong. His column, while not exactly original, made some reasonable points. However, his references to NIESR also managed to get everything wrong – numbers, dates, and substance, scoring an impressive three errors in one sentence. Even economic forecasters rarely manage that. When I (politely) pointed out the errors to Mr Parris, he managed to dig himself in even deeper, obliging me to complain to the PCC, resulting in a lengthy and detailed correction. The summary is here, and more detail here.
7. I’ve written at length before about Dan Hannan’s smear that NIESR received European Commission funding because NIESR “supports EU membership” (as opposed to bidding through competitive and open tender for research projects, sometimes but not always successfully, which is what actually happens). So no more here, except to note that once again even though it was obvious from the start that Hannan’s statement was both false and malicious, it took a PCC complaint to get the Telegraph to withdraw and apologise. Hannan of course still hasn’t.
8. Finally, one I haven’t described before. The first time I complained to the PCC was when the Daily Mail claimed that I had compromised NIESR’s political independence by joining a Commission on Youth Unemployment. The Commission, established by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, was chaired by David Miliband (then a Labour MP) and included Debbie Scott (a Conservative peer), another academic (Paul Gregg) and a well-known local authority chief executive (with a Conservative council). I was really at a loss as to why the Mail would print something so obviously silly, apropos of nothing in particular, but matters became clearer when the Mail admitted in a letter to me that their “source” was a (relatively junior I think) Treasury Special Advisor. Unfortunately, s/he got the facts (and not just on this) so hopelessly wrong that the Mail was forced to beat a hurried retreat. The correction is here.