Jill Segger

Lies, damned lies and statistics: politicians and the sacredness of facts

By Jill Segger
May 13, 2013

There is nothing complex about the mechanics of truth. Lie or persistently misrepresent the facts and trust will be destroyed. This is as true in politics as it is within marriages, friendships and businesses. However, it seems not to matter to the Secretary of State for Education, to his colleague at the Department of Work and Pensions or even to the Prime Minister and leader of their party.

Iain Duncan Smith's careless way with statistics has been well documented and officially rebuked (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18379) The Prime Minister has offended and suffered a reprimand in like manner (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18138)

Now Michael Gove has been shown to have used PR commissioned 'puff polls' to support his theory of educational decline at the hands of “enemies of promise”.

Retired teacher Janet Downs submitted a freedom of information request to the Department for Education querying a claim made by the Minister in the Mail on Sunday newspaper in March that “Survey after survey has revealed disturbing historical ignorance, with one teenager in five believing Winston Churchill was a fictional character while 58 per cent think Sherlock Holmes was real.”

Ms Downs' persistence as to the provenance of these surveys eventually forced the Department of Education to reveal that Mr Gove's principal source was a press release issued by UKTV Gold in 2008 which the channel's director had described as showing the strength of UK fiction.

The other constituents of the “survey after survey” were a study of 2000 11 to 16 year olds made by Premier Inn which used its findings to suggest that historical ignorance “can be rectified by visiting all the fantastic landmarks and places of interest the UK has to offer” (while presumably staying in its hotels); a study commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of 1000 children aged 11 to 18 to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London; a pamphlet entitled 'Freedom, Aspiration and the New Curriculum' by Professor Robert Tombs for the right-of-centre think-tank Politeia; an article by London Mums Magazine and a poll carried out by the Sea Cadets to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. The Department of Education linked this only to a press report in the Daily Telegraph newspaper and not to the actual findings.

None of these 'surveys' provided links to the original research or gave information as to whether it had been commissioned by reputable polling companies who met British Polling Council standards. Michael Gove's failure (or refusal) to examine his sources is reprehensible. It is hard to see this as anything other than a cynical and opportunistic attempt to give a spurious authority to the Minister's personal agenda.

If the differing views of a pluralist democracy are to be the engine of fruitful debate and just policy, voters must be able to have confidence that they can draw upon accurate data, honestly presented. If politicians are not called to account for gross distortions of information, the currency of our common life is so debased that politics becomes dysfunctional. Its practitioners are held in contempt, trust withers away and the very possibility of truth in public life disappears from our thinking.

In his 1921 essay marking the centenary of the Manchester Guardian, the paper's editor CP Scott famously declared “Comment is free but facts are sacred”. Let us be diligent in reminding our elected representatives that we expect them to live and serve in accordance with this truth.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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