Fact-checking the Spectator’s front-page article on the riots


4:00 pm - August 19th 2011

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contribution by Clive Power

Harriet Sergeant’s Spectator front-cover article this week “These rioters are Tony Blair’s children” is riven with inaccurate statistics and ill-founded claims.

Adding little but more tinder to the bonfire of ill considered comment about recent events, Sergeant (a fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies [CPS]) uses her article to gives her opinion that the riots were “not about poverty or race” and also to state that “unless we understand the causes of this anarchy and the role that government has played, how can we put it right?”

I am of the opinion that dubious ‘facts’ throughout her article mean anyone trying to read it for an understanding of the riots will be able to do not much more than chase phantoms, never mind be equipped by it to ‘put anything right’.

Looking at her claims in detail (in the order that they appear):

1. The source for her claim that “A full 63 per cent of white working class boys, and just over half of black Caribbean boys at the age of 14 have a reading age of seven or below” is presumably what she wrote in her own CPS publication of 2009, ‘WASTED’.

In this, she stated “63% of 14 year old white working class boys have a reading ability of half their age. Over half, 54% of 14 year old black Caribbean boys have a reading age of seven” but also that “White working class boys are most at risk of under-performing with 63 per cent unable to read and write properly at 14 compared to 43 per cent of white girls from a similar background. Black working class boys do not do much better. Just over half of them, 54 per cent, can not read or write properly at 14”.

Note “have a reading age of seven or below” only appears in the first of the two passages quoted above from ‘WASTED’.

‘WASTED’ gives the source of the second these claims as a report in the Daily Mail on 13 August 2007. The Daily Mail article refers to an unnamed Bow Group report but makes no mention of comparison to seven year olds just stating, as in the latter passage in WASTED, that “White working-class boys were found to be most at risk of under-performing, with 63 per cent unable to read and write properly at 14.”

Indeed elsewhere in the Mail article, it is reported that it is just “one in five (14 year old) boys has a reading ability of a pupil half his age.”

I have no idea about the veracity or not of the claim in the Spectator article about so many boys having a reading age half their actual age but I note that a report in the (London) Evening Standard on 13 August 2008 about the last SATS results for 14 year olds (which were a way of measuring literacy and which were abolished for that age in 2008) that states that “More than one in five (of 14 year old) boys – 21 per cent – have a reading age of nine.”

2. I think Ms Sergeant must have been very unfortunate that the 14 year old boys that she interviewed, and who had dropped out or had been excluded from school’ “only turn(ed) up to school to sell drugs or stolen goods.” It surprises me that they did not ever turn up to to do things like meet their siblings there or their friends still attending their school.

3. Her claim, possibly originally known from late 90s research, that “half of the prison population has a reading age below that of an 11-year-old” has been displaced by a more authoritative statistic from 2008, given by Edward Leigh MP, that “nearly 40 per cent (of those in custody) have a reading age lower than that of a competent 11- year old.”[iv] [v]

4. Between 2001 and 2009, 12 teachers were ‘struck off’ from teaching for incompetence, not just “suspended”. Being stuck off can be permanent, or for a fixed period.[vi]

5. Sergeant wrongly states “of the 1.8 million new jobs created over the Labour years, 99 per cent went to immigrants”. Rather the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad was equivalent to 88 per cent of the number of extra workers that there were in 2010, compared with 1997 [vii].

6. The unemployed get money designated for council tax and other things but I am not aware of anything for “utility payments” as the author appears to be stating. I understand that it is possible that small sums may be taken directly from benefits to pay towards utility bills, but this is money taken from claimant’s benefits and paid towards debts owed; it isn’t any extra money for the person claiming benefits. [viii]

7. I wonder how current is her claim that “the catering trade alone has recruited 10,000 workers from outside Europe to work in kitchens or as porters or back of house staff”? Sergeant also uses this statistic in her CPS publication WASTED but I see the same statistic was used in the Daily Telegraph on 14 February 2005.

I thought that Labour’s ‘get tough on immigration’ persona, in its latter years in government, had meant the end of some working visas for such workers and so there may well have been a reduction from the reported 10,000 non-European catering workers, but I do not know the current number of such workers (or how European is defined here: EEA +CH + ?)

8. I would be interested in the source of her statistic that “49 per cent of British parents did not know where their children were in the evenings or with whom. Some 45 per cent of 15 year old boys spent four or more evening a week hanging about ‘with friends’ compared to just 17 per cent in France.”

Certainly if boys are out so often hanging around, I would have thought they must be doing a lot of revision with their friends during this time because 65.4 per cent of boys obtained Grades A* to C in the GSCEs in 2010

9. Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe, not Europe.

—-
A longer version of this blog-post with annotation is on Clive Power’s blog

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Reader comments


1. Shatterface

‘8. I would be interested in the source of her statistic that “49 per cent of British parents did not know where their children were in the evenings or with whom.’

I should hope not – it would be a miserable life if your parents knew what you were up to all the time.

‘Some 45 per cent of 15 year old boys spent four or more evening a week hanging about ‘with friends’ compared to just 17 per cent in France.”’

And if they were at home she’d be complaining that they spent all night watching TV or playing video games when they should be out mixing with real people. Got to feel sorry for the 83% of kids stick at home. No wonder they’re more prone to rioting as adults.

2. Shatterface

‘8. I would be interested in the source of her statistic that “49 per cent of British parents did not know where their children were in the evenings or with whom.’

I should hope not – it would be a miserable life if your parents knew what you were up to all the time.

‘Some 45 per cent of 15 year old boys spent four or more evening a week hanging about ‘with friends’ compared to just 17 per cent in France.”’

And if they were at home she’d be complaining that they spent all night watching TV or playing video games when they should be out mixing with real people. Got to feel sorry for the 83% of French kids stick at home. No wonder they’re more prone to rioting as adults.

3. Francis Rama kuba

Earlier this year young people without a voice that are not listened to demonstrated and rioted outside/inside Conservative Headquarters in London smashing it up.

We have also just witnessed the worst riots in British history that spread all across the country at lightening spead under David Cameron’s fifteen short months as PrimeMinister.

We now have the Conservative Party spin machine going into overdrive to point the finger in all the wrong directions trying to deceitful fool the entire British population into believing that the riots were nothing whatsoever to do with their behaviour, policies and claim they they were not in the slightest political.

Like everything else the Conservatives blame everyone else particularly the Labour Party.

So a message for David Cameron : ” You can fool the people same of the time but you cant not fool them all of the time “.

David Cameron lied during the election campaign and despicable so after. This Coalition’s foundations are built on deceit, spin and outright evil lies.

I believe that most of the nation can see how deceitful and nasty the Tories are.

4. Shatterface

‘We have also just witnessed the worst riots in British history that spread all across the country at lightening spead under David Cameron’s fifteen short months as PrimeMinister.’

Also, Torchwood’s not as good as it was under New Labour.

Earlier this year young people without a voice that are not listened to

Eh?

That’s too much facts and figures from me. An easier read was Rod Liddle’s blog piece also in the Spectator titled ”Our children urgently need less self-esteem”.

Their entire lives, up until this point, have been an exercise in making them feel really bloody good about themselves, even — or perhaps especially — if they are fantastically useless. At school nothing is allowed to impinge upon their self-esteem; they are not corrected when they misspell, they are, by and large, not told that they are falling short of a standard because there isn’t really a standard to fall short of.

Sometimes the simple view is closer to the truth than great complex analyses involving statistics.

7. Shatterface

Rob Liddle telling us kids have too much self-esteem.

Priceless!

8. Charles Wheeler

It’s called PROPAGANDA

goodpoint no.3

I’m unconvinced that Blair and the Blairites can disown this sad legacy. After all, New Labour left us with the legacy of the largest per capita prison population in western Europe.

According to this news in The Times of 2005: “A United Nations report has labelled Scotland the most violent country in the developed world, with people three times more likely to be assaulted than in America. England and Wales recorded the second highest number of violent assaults while Northern Ireland recorded the fewest.”

11. Badstephen

Why are we falling over ourselves to defend Blair? His social policies were as harsh and authoritarian as anything under the Conservatives – Hurd and Clarke were arguably more liberal than Blunkett and Straw. The Tory loathing of New Labour has always been the rage of Caliban on seeing his face in the glass.

Social liberals need to counter this sudden accusation that, somehow, we’ve been in charge since 1979. Both Littlejohn and Mel have spoken of the liberal experiment of the last 30 years causing the riots. Funny that, I could have sworn I remembered a shrill blonde lady who made liberalism a dirty word and dragged all three major parties to the right. Maybe it was all a bad dream. On the Littlejohn/Mel logic, presumably the reason the 60s enjoyed relative peace on the streets was because that well-known hard-line authoritarian Roy Jenkins

12. Badstephen

…was in charge

Norman Tebbit routinely blames Woy Jenkins and the liberalism of the 1960s for almost all that is wrong with Britain since.

I did a bit of (much needed analytical) research on that claim once and found that all the notable new wave literature which prompted the liberalism of the 1960s and beyond was first published in the 1950s, not the 1960s:

JD Salinger: Catcher in the Rye (1951), John Wain: Hurry on Down (1953), Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim (1954), Pauline Réage: L’histoire d’O (1954), Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse (1954), Colin Wilson: The Outsider (1956), John Braine: Room at the Top (1957), Jack Kerouac: On the Road (1957), Malcolm Bradbury: Eating People is Wrong (1959), Keith Waterhouse: Billy Liar (1959) and the stage drama of Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot (1953), John Osborne: Look Back in Anger (1956) and The Entertainer (1957), and Shelagh Delaney: A Taste of Honey (1958).

Exceptions seem to be Albert Camus: The Outsider, which was first published in French (L’Etranger) in 1942 and Stan Barstow: A Kind of Loving (1960) as well as John Osborne’s play: Luther (1961).

I suppose a claim could also be made for some of the literary output of Sartre in the 1940s too but he was also an apologist for Stalinism, which is hardly congruent with the more usual connotations of small-L liberalism.

The acquittal at a jury trial of Penguin Books on the charge of publishing DH Lawrence’s supposedly obscene: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) did set the cause of literary censorship back and unleash the floodgates but that acquittal was in 1960 with a Conservative government still firmly in place until October 1964.

The satirical BBC TV weekly series: That Was The Week That Was, was broadcast in 1962/3. Admittedly, the rock musical Hair didn’t debut until 1967.

@ 3:

“Earlier this year young people without a voice that are not listened to demonstrated and rioted outside/inside Conservative Headquarters in London smashing it up.”

Erm, no, they do have a voice, because they are (or will be, when they’re old enough) entitled to vote. “Not getting the government you voted for” and “not having a voice” are two different things.

“We have also just witnessed the worst riots in British history”

A bit of a hyperbolic statement, really.

“under David Cameron’s fifteen short months as PrimeMinister.”

So maybe David Cameron is the worst PM ever, and changed a country in which everything was hunky-dory into a riot-filled hellhole in just fifteen months. Or maybe this issue has complex, long-term causes, and can’t be pinned to any one government’s policies.

“Like everything else the Conservatives blame everyone else particularly the Labour Party.”

Yeah, those nasty Conservatives, blaming a political party they don’t like for the riots. It’s not like you’d ev– Oh.

“So a message for David Cameron : ” You can fool the people same of the time but you cant not fool them all of the time “.”

If he can’t not fool them all the time, he’s probably pretty happy.

15. Shatterface

‘I did a bit of (much needed analytical) research on that claim once and found that all the notable new wave literature which prompted the liberalism of the 1960s and beyond was first published in the 1950s, not the 1960s’

A good reading list that, but arguably the ’60s film versions of some of those had more social impact.

(And you missed off William Burroughs.)

16. cultofringo

Blair, more like Tony B.liar…am I right. I blame liberals for everything. If my toast is burnt its liberal bread, if the take away is late, then its a liberal take away, if I am sick after drinking loads of beer then it must be liberal beer. Bloody liberals. If I could go back in time I would head butt Roy Jenkins, with his ‘liberal ideals’ and ‘tolerance’ for others.

@ 11 & 13…good call massive props to you two.

I agree with Damon (5) that lists of facts and figures (as in my article) are dry to read but I also wish that more articles in the independent media were the result of research and referenced the source of their facts and figures. Opinion pieces can be good to read when well-written, but I’m tired of the multitude of blogs that are just venting.

The author of the Spectator article is a regular talking head and is widely published in the conservative media. She is also a fellow of The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS).

The CPS describe themselves as “one of Britain’s leading think tanks” and with “an outstanding record of influencing government policy”. They claim a whole list of measures that they proposed and which the Coalition government have enacted including “Abolition of school quangos”,” Reform of the Children’s Plan” and “Abolition of the Serious Organised Crime Agency” all of which is stated “have their roots in papers published by the CPS.” (http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thinktankcentral/2010/08/who-first-came-up-with-the-governments-policies-the-centre-for-policy-studies-stakes-its-claims.html).

It is such a CPS paper, WASTED, by Sergeant, that forms the basis of some of her incorrect facts in the Spectator article. A paper that also has insufficient sources, like simply “The Daily Mail” of a certain date’. It is alarming if such research really does help determine government policy.

A few years ago I was impressed with the fact-checking of the Economist, when one of their journalists came back to me checking a couple of figures, amongst a lot of information that I had given for his research for an article. These figures were not quite as robust as others, but also very obscure, and it reflected well on that publication that they discovered this and wanted other sources – they did not run with those figures in the end.

As a subscriber to the Spectator, I will be writing to the editor asking him why they do not appear to fact-check and why I should believe anything they write which make uses of statistics or similar in its analysis or augments.

18. Charlieman

@13. Bob B: “I did a bit of (much needed analytical) research on that claim once and found that all the notable new wave literature which prompted the liberalism of the 1960s and beyond was first published in the 1950s, not the 1960s…”

Interestingly, three (Amis, Bradbury, Wilson) of your thirteen authors started those works whilst living in Leicester which must have been a very humdrum city at the time. Anthony Burgess was also writing in and about Leicester in the 1950s (The Right to an Answer).

@15: “(And you missed off William Burroughs.)”

Thanks, although I’ve never read William Burroughs.

Besides, advant guarde yoof in those times were likely to read the novels or see the stage plays and many of the novels were never produced as movies (Eating People is Wrong) or came out as unintended slapstick comedies (Lucky Jim).

In an email to friends, I’ve just recalled seeing Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 at the Streatham Hill Theatre during its London run. The point of the email was that I’ve just bought online the movie of the play – starring Richard Burton – which I have never seen before.

If anything marked new wave literature and drama, it was that play and, less suredly perhaps, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The movies that really had an impact in the 1950s were probably Elia Kazan’s Streetcar Named Desire, Bergman’s Seventh Seal and Marcel Carné’s Les Enfant Du Paradis. I revival of Ibsen’s drama: Peer Gynt (1867), also comes to mind

I fogot to mention the poetry of Philip Larkin – try: This Be The Verse.

None of that can be blamed on Woy Jenkins although, having lived through it, the 1960s were certainly a break with the past. I recall listening to Harold Wilson’s famous speech about a white-hot technological revolution at a rally in the 1964 election campaign sat next to Anthony King.

@18: “Interestingly, three (Amis, Bradbury, Wilson) of your thirteen authors started those works whilst living in Leicester which must have been a very humdrum city at the time. Anthony Burgess was also writing in and about Leicester in the 1950s (The Right to an Answer).”

Also, Larkin was a librarian at Leicester for a short time before moving on to Hull although his muse, Monica Jones, stayed on at Leicester as a lecturer in English Lit. Patrick Nowell-Smith, whom I mentioned in another thread, was the philosophy prof at Leicester in the late 1950s. Richard Hoggart (who wrote Uses of Literacy (1957) and was a lead defence witness at the Lady Chaterley trial) was there at the time too. He went on to become head of UNESCO.

Leicester has produced several famed authors and playwrights: CP Snow, William Cooper, Joe Orton, Sue Townsend.

Famously, Alastair Campbell went to school in Leicester – as did Chris Dillow who writes here. Anthony Barnett was there too in the 1960s.

Btw DNA profiling was invented at Leicester.

@20. Bob B: Richard Hoggart is the father of Simon Hoggart at the Grauniad. And the Dimblebys grew up at College House, still part of the University of Leicester but scheduled for demolition.

Can you give any clues why Colin Wilson’s The Outsider has ever been taken seriously? I couldn’t get into it and Wilson’s inadvertent advocacy of delightful frauds such as Charlotte Bach, whilst amusing, mean that I am unable to trust his judgement.

@21: “Can you give any clues why Colin Wilson’s The Outsider has ever been taken seriously?”

None at all – except that it cribbed the title of Albert Camus’s justly famed novel translated as: The Outsider. As a young teen, I can recall encountering the media brouhaha about Wilson’s The Outsider at the time and having much difficulty in finding out who he was.

I think you mean the Attenboroughs in college House, not the Dimblebys. You didn’t mention that Ramsay MacDonald was a Leicester MP from 1906-18.

The late Alan Walters, Mrs Thatcher’s personal economic adviser, was an alumnus of University College, Leicester, from the time when students sat external London Uni exams.

Moving to more recent times, David Blanchflower (recently late of the BoE Monetary Policy Committee) is another economics alumnus. Anthony Giddens, of Third Way fame, taught sociology there for years.

Lord Brian Simon, a leading champion of comprehensive schools, was an education prof at Leicester for many years. In the mid 1970s, he co-authored a book with Caroline Benn: Half-Way There. Those were times when Mrs Thatcher, as education minister in Heath’s government, had been rubber-stamping applications from councils to change grammar schools into comprehensives.

What is often overlooked nowadays is this: The Bureau of Statistics of the newly formed League of Nations identified Leicester in 1936 as the second richest city in Europe. The depression of the 1930s had little impact on Leicester.

I knew about Richard Hoggart being Simon Hoggart’s dad.

23. ex-Labour voter

It is not that long ago that the Spectator had all over the front cover a cartoon and a headline claiming that global warming was all a myth.

Fact: Over a hundred years ago it was discovered in a laboratory that carbon dioxide trapped heat.

Fact: The atmosphere of Venus is around 96% carbon dioxide (about 3,000 times that of earth). This is the main reason why it is hot enough to melt lead on the planet’s surface.

Facts and the Spectator do not really go together!

@ 23:

As far as I’m aware, most anti-warmists (or whatever you want to call them) don’t dispute that CO2 can trap heat; what they do dispute is the idea that the amounts of CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere are sufficient to cause significant changes to the earth’s climate. So saying “CO2 traps heat. Fact” is a pretty poor way of changing people’s minds.

25. George Brennan

Mr Power writes:

“Sergeant wrongly states “of the 1.8 million new jobs created over the Labour years, 99 per cent went to immigrants”. Rather the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad was equivalent to 88 per cent of the number of extra workers that there were in 2010, compared with 1997 [vii].”

Quickly read, this might suggest that Sergeant had written 99 where she should have written 88. That would be a serious mistake but not a significant one. I assume that the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad includes many who were already in work in 1997?

Yes, she has converged two figures and also done this inaccurately. The workforce increased by more than two million between 1997 and 2010 and it so happens that 88 per cent of that figure (not 99 per cent) happens to be the number of “non-UK born” workers in Britain in 2010.

As well as getting the percentage incorrect, it’s also completely wrong for her to state that either 99 per cent or 88 per cent of the “jobs created over the Labour years… went to immigrants” because, as George Brennan states,“ the number of those in the workforce who were born abroad includes many who were already in work in 1997”.

Sergeant’s error with the percentage may relate to her saying the workforce increased by 1.8 million jobs (not 2 million) between 1997 to 2010. It could be that the percentage error is “a serious mistake but not a significant one”, as George states, but to write (as she does) that just about all new jobs between 1997 and 2010 were taken by immigrants is both a serious and significant error.

Just think about it – did 99 per cent (or 88 per cent) of workers at Sure Start centres throughout the country in 2010 (new jobs created during the Labour government) come from abroad!?

Unusually the Daily Mail gives the relevant figures but again with the same ‘misunderstanding’ (being generous) about the migrant part of the workforce summed up in their provocative and wrong headline “Migrants took 9 out of 10 jobs created under Labour”
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1325013/Migrants-took-9-10-jobs-created-Labour.html#ixzz1Vgx0Unwc

@ clive

)Ou’ve written a whole article trying to poke holesin a spectator article’s numbers. Some might well be off, but do we really care if it is 40% or 50% of the prison population which having a reading age uner 11.

You’ve totally missed the important.point – that all these statistics are shocking and that nothing was done to improve the underlying causes under 13 years of labour. In many cases the problems got worse.

@ 23

Gah…more greenhouse effect nonsense. All gasses will cause presurre heating of a planets surface. What you really are reffering too is the arrhenius equation which showed that Co2 can trap heat. It can, but its rubbish at it. Water vapour is much better….

The main reason. People have become so focused on Co2 is that it is roughly homogenous in the atmosphere, and is easy to measure and model. Water vapour is almost impossible to at the moment. Correlation does not imply the causality that many warmists depend on for their argumwents, let alone that measuring temperature is not straightforward in its own right.

I’ve put together an even longer and drier investigation of claim (1) – http://pb204.blogspot.com/2011/08/made-up-statistic.html

Fact checking is important. I don’t believe that anyone changes their mind by reading a piece like Rod Liddle’s quoted by damon – either you agreed with him already or you didn’t. I do believe that some people could be persuaded that Harriet Sergeant is wrong if her statistics are shown to be wrong.


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  1. sunny hundal

    "The Spectator front-cover article on riots is riddled with inaccurate stats and ill-founded claims" http://t.co/QsEhRs0

  2. w.m o'mara

    "The Spectator front-cover article on riots is riddled with inaccurate stats and ill-founded claims" http://t.co/QsEhRs0

  3. Alex Simon

    "The Spectator front-cover article on riots is riddled with inaccurate stats and ill-founded claims" http://t.co/QsEhRs0

  4. magicredpill

    "The Spectator front-cover article on riots is riddled with inaccurate stats and ill-founded claims" http://t.co/QsEhRs0

  5. mikeL

    "The Spectator front-cover article on riots is riddled with inaccurate stats and ill-founded claims" http://t.co/QsEhRs0

  6. mike j

    "The Spectator front-cover article on riots is riddled with inaccurate stats and ill-founded claims" http://t.co/QsEhRs0

  7. Gideon Osborne

    "The Spectator front-cover article on riots is riddled with inaccurate stats and ill-founded claims" http://t.co/QsEhRs0





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