Sunday, December 31, 2006

My top ten favourite Toynbee errors

Between May and December 2006, this blog detailed the factual errors in Polly Toynbee's columns.  I have now stopped doing this, but here are my favourite Toynbee errors for that period:

10. Polly implies that 142% of people are dissatisfied with Tony Blair [insert own joke].

9. Polly asks of "Cameron's set" the following question: "Do they know the median (middle England) salary is just £21,000?" when it wasn't.

8. Polly copies a sentence from an IPPR report, pausing only to strike all references to the sources, which would have revealed the factual inaccuracies in the sentence.

7. Complaining that more prisoners reoffend when she actually meant were reconvicted, while in the same column she praises two trends which would lead to higher reconvictions even if reoffending had remained flat -- improved detection and fewer abandoned trials.

6. Polly is £100bn out in her approximation of state spending.

5. Polly actually cites a source for her assertion that "Arnold Schwarzenegger drives his own Humvee in San Francisco".  Sadly, the source she cites makes it clear that it is not his.

4. Toynbee's colleague, Mike White, disbelieves her "facts".

3. Polly says that emissions have gone up by 3%, when they had gone down by 3%.

2. In a column criticising Stephen Byers for using "mendacious figures", she says "[t]his week City dealers' bonuses soared higher than ever, to £21bn".  She later backtracks, and puts the total for all City bonuses (not just dealers) at £9bn, with no acknowledgement that her earlier number was mendacious.

1. Polly writes a 21-word sentence with five facutal errors in it.

Shutters down

After eight enjoyable months, I'm going to mothball this blog.  This is not because Polly Toynbee has suddenly started using real facts that she undertsands -- on the contrary, her sloppiness and inaccuracy continue unabated.

No, rather it is because I want to do other things more than I want to do this.

This blog -- my first serious effort at concerted blogging -- was an experiment that was successful in many ways but also limiting in others.  I'd quite like to write about a broader range of topics than Polly's columns, and would also like to express opinions.  That won't work on this blog, which is after all about Polly Toynbee's misuse of facts.  So, in order to give myself the time to do this, I'm going to stop posting here, and will write elsewhere under a different guise.

I'm glad I've done this.  I don't see this as embarassing  juvenalia to be forgotten, but rather a successful first endeavour which has taught me a lot, introduced me to some humblingly good bloggers, and has given me plenty of food for thought about what I should do next.

There is more below the break, but for those who are stopping here, thank you for reading.


My lowlights

The biggest has to be the two times when I've goofed.  The first was back in June, when bizarrely one could have said "six months ago, Labour were ahead by 10% in the polls" and "six months ago, Labour were behind by 9% in the polls" with equal accuracy, and I thought that quoting the latter was enough to disprove the former -- though it genuinely was an occasion when two contradictory statements were both true.  The second was when I mistook newspaper circulation and readership, and as a result was only as inaccurate as Polly Toynbee.

Another lowlight has been some poor debating on the web, be it the bafflingly thick Neil Harding's argument that I must be right-wing because I criticise Polly Toynbee, Cassilis's characterisation of refuting the statement that "social mobility has come to a halt" by citing academic research that people born into the lowest income quartile have a better than 60% chance of escaping that lowest income quartile as "semantic hair-splitting", or the folks who stumble across the blog, look around for a few minutes, leave a sarcastic comment and then disappear without caring if there is a reply.

And the final lowlight has to be the Guardian's Corrections and Clarifications column, which does not "correct significant errors as soon as possible", and in fact ignores many errors which are brought to its attention.

My highlights

I fully accept that this is a profoundly unoriginal insight, but the internet is a phenomenal research tool.  I have said in my profile that "I've learned a lot by reading the research that [Polly] skims", and it's true.  There is a wealth of interesting work, research, information and data which is out there which is waiting to be found by anyone with a browser, broadband connection and a familiarity with Google.  And, nota bene Polly, intellectual curiosity.

I've  also been thoroughly impressed by fellow bloggers.  Despite my comment above about poor debtaing on the web, there are enough writers out there who are informative, entertaining and thought-provoking to make it a fascinating medium, as well as some very good writers.

And on a purely personal note, a big highlight was discovering that Ken Livingstone had paid Polly Toynbee £7,000 of taxpayers' money in an non-competitive tender to rehash some of her old Guardian columns.  That money came partly from me; the re-hash including some particularly misleading distortions of some academic research; and Polly Toynbee is quite an overt flatterer of Ken's.  Until discovering that, I was prepared to accept that she might just be careless and sloppy in her use of facts.  After discovering that, I think her morally bankrupt.

Friday, December 29, 2006

No gift of accuracy or consistency for Xmas

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes of:

Restore the laws limiting media ownership by any one magnate, abolished by Margaret Thatcher to let Rupert Murdoch acquire his empire, so that he now owns over 40% of the press plus ever more dominant Sky.

Thanks to my goof over circulation and readership, we've seen the results for both; News International has 32% of circulation and 36% of readership.  Note, by the way, that these figures are for most of the national dailies and Sundays.  They exclude the local press.


She also writes:

Boasts about "inward investment" to Britain are often just a sign on the borders saying Britain for Sale

Strange; on 13 October she thought it was good news:

the latest UN figures for inward investment show that last year the UK attracted more inward investment than any other country. It was twice as high as America's, growing by 183% last year. Meanwhile, the OECD ranks the UK as one of the most attractive places for foreign direct investment. The World Bank rates the UK top of the EU for best business conditions.

Here is more good news for the CBI to stick in its pipe
[emphasis added]


She also writes:

For decades there have been reliable measures of relative national happiness: countries with least inequality are the happiest. (Yes, the Nordics come top.)

According to the World Bank's World Development Indicators 2002 (handily reproduced at the indispensable NationMaster website), the country where the richest quintile accounted for the lowest share of national income was Slovakia, with 31.4% (source).  Their net happiness score (i.e. the proportion of people who say they are happy less the proportion who say they are unhappy) was a pretty miserable 4% -- 45th of 50 countries listed (source).

The next most equal country was Belarus, with the richest 20% getting 33.3% of national income.  Their happiness score was actually -8%!  The third most equal country, Hungary, had the richest quintile with 34.4% of national income and a happiness score of a slightly more respectable 46%. 

Friday, December 22, 2006


In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Thus Gordon Brown personally is well ahead of the three party leaders as "doing a good job". Blair's rating is -34, Cameron is -5 and Campbell -9.

The MORI research actually has Brown on zero -- it says:

Over two in five (42%) people say they are satisfied with Gordon Brown's performance with as many saying they are dissatisfied — giving a net satisfaction rating of zero. When Ipsos MORI last measured public approval of Gordon Brown in February 2006, 47% of the public said they were satisfied with his performance (5 points higher than now) and 36% dissatisfied (6 points lower than now).

Not that "well ahead" of -5, one could argue.


She also writes:

Remember at the same point a year after becoming leader, Blair personally hit 30% approval while David Cameron is down on -5%.

The Labour leadership election was July 1994.  By July 1995, according to MORI, satisfaction with Blair was at 51% and dissatisfaction at 24% -- a net approval of 27%, and not 30% on a directly comparable basis.


She goes on to write:

The Cameron myth has cracks: he is not scoring well with women, and he is only ahead on traditional Tory turf - tax, crime, asylum; leading a little on health is his one break with tradition.

Maybe we would be wise to distrust people who peddle the "myth" that Cameron does well with women?


Polly asks:

Why isn't Labour doing worse? It's the economy, stupid. Look at Ipsos Mori's end of year assessment and it is the one issue where Labour gallops a mile ahead. People are secure in work in the most prolonged growth since records began...

Yes, do look at the Mori research:

The December Economic Optimism Index stands at minus 27


In November 2006, MORI asked:

On balance, do you agree or disagree with the statement that "in the long term, this government's policies will improve the state of Britain's economy"?

39% agreed, 51% disagreed (source).



It is almost Christmas, and it is good to see the old favourites being dusted down and recycled again, like:

...the papers predict next year's house price rise at 7%, 10% or 15%. That means 70% of the population gloats daily over their rising wealth and good luck their parents never dreamed of. This is the true national lottery - and all home owners are winners.

We've seen the 70% of the population are homeowners before a number of times this year, and it is not true.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Channelling Lionel Richie, strangely enough

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

But yesterday Hutton shook a threatening stick at those he regards as social-contract defaulters. He made a good case: one in 10 of those who draw jobseeker's allowance has spent six of the past seven years on benefits...

In fact, he talked about 12 per cent according to the, er, Guardian, which is a lot closer to one in eight, and is certainly not one in ten.


She also writes:

As the City reaps its £9bn bonuses, that money fuels an ultrasonic house-price boom. It's bad enough around the country at 180% up in the past decade, but far worse in London.

That's now the second time we've seen the £9bn figure for City bonuses (first time on 14 November).  We've also seen a £21bn figure for City bonuses twice (on 22 August and on 15 September).  Pick enough numbers, one of them is bound to be right...

The 180% increase on house prices is the same number that Michael Portillo cites here, in a piece which also juxtaposes the £9bn/180% increase figures.  According to the Halifax, though, the figure is 187%.


She also writes:

Rents are sent sky high, making it impossible for the unemployed to lose housing benefit by taking a job. They will never own a shed in the capital as the gap yawns ever wider between the 70% homeowners counting untaxed winnings every month, while the rest and their children are consigned to social housing forever.

The prose seems a little mangled here, but the 70%-of-people are homeowners figure really does need to be decommissioned.  The actual figure is that 70% of dwellings are owner-occupied, according to National Statistics.  This is not the same thing.


Compare and contrast, from today's column:

This social contract has mostly been kept by both sides under Labour.


Let's look at how the state breaks its side of the social contract.


Friday, December 15, 2006

More hot air

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Political pessimists fear that nothing short of the catastrophic flooding of New York, with millions dead, will make the rich world understand that climate change really is the greatest global terror of all. Now the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development issues a warning on the future of the Alpine skiing industry. Could a lack of snow in Klosters, Gstaad and Courchevel have the same electrifying effect on powerful opinion formers without millions having to die first?

The OECD warning actually says that:

There will also be "winners" and "losers", both in terms of regions – for example Alpes Maritimes, Steiermark/Styria, and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia are considerably more vulnerable than Grisons, Valais, and Savoie

and that

Switzerland would suffer the least

Courchevel is of course in the Savoie, and Gstaad and Klosters are of course in Switzerland.  But then naming the ski resorts that are actually vulnerable would not be quite so evocative of the rich and famous.


She also writes:

this week Douglas Alexander made a resoundingly important environmental announcement on re-regulating buses - but it went hardly reported.

That is, hardly reported apart from here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


She also writes:

A reversal of climate change needs strong action by the state at home and abroad, especially in the EU; Tory shrink-the-state Euroscepticism can't do that. It needs admission that the damaged environment is a market failure; the Tories can't admit that.

Really?  Apparently, according to Zac Goldsmith, writing in the, er, Guardian:

George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, speaking in Japan today, will describe environmental pollution as a market failure. "It is a classic case of what economists call an externality. Because the pollution is external to the market, polluting can make life easier, while the true cost is paid not by the polluter, but by everyone else." Given what we can expect if even the most conservative climate change predictions are accurate, failure to correct this market failure is not an option.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Something rotten

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

...if they [the Tories] regain power, they will at least be embarrassed if child poverty soars as it did last time (from one child in nine in 1979 to one in three by the time they left office).

The last two times we had figures from Toynbee about child poverty in 1979, it was 14%, which is one in seven, and not one in nine.


She also writes:

Tax credits are indeed a problem: why should the taxpayer subsidise low-paying employers? But naturally the party that opposed the minimum wage does not draw the obvious conclusion — that if earnings rose there would be no need for state subsidy... 

[O]ne fact is conveniently missing from these reports: Denmark has exactly the same proportion of one-parent families and the least child poverty in the EU.

Talking of conveniently missing facts:

Denmark has no statutory minimum wage.

According to Minister for Employment, Claus Hjort Frederiksen.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wealth OK, income not; accumulate but don't earn

In today's column (can't seem to find it online yet.  UPDATE it is now here) Polly Toynbee writes:

Meanwhile the annual Rich List this week will show runaway wealth at the very top jumping up another 18.4%. (Maybe that's modest for self-made stars and private entrepreneurs, when the real scandal is CEOs of top public companies paying themselves 30% more this year.)

The 18.4% increase in "runaway" wealth comes from the Sunday Times Rich List, and represents £63bn (source).  The 30% increase for CEOs is actually FTSE-100 CEOs, and represents an average increase of about £0.9m each (source), that is £90m total.

Sorry, but which one is the real scandal?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hot air

In a Comment is Free post today, Polly Toynbee writes:

Apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger drives his own Humvee in San Francisco - but it runs on hyrodrogen - so size may not always matter.

It is nice to see a source, particularly as it makes the debunking that much easier.  According to the Forbes article that Polly refers to:

Hummer's parent, General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ), owns the H2H

So it's not his own.  Neither does he drive his own three (non-hydrogen) Humvees that often, according to AP:

Since the election, Schwarzenegger has reduced his fleet from seven Hummers to three, and he rarely drives any of them, spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said.

'My Hummers are now in the garage, because I get driven by the CHP all the time,' the governor said.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

A little Miss Tree

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Think of Easter Island and the history of its destruction, recounted by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. The Easter Islanders became so obsessed with their own status symbols, the moai - the mighty stone statues for which their island is famous - that in erecting them they destroyed every tree that made life on the island sustainable, competing clan against clan in statue-building. They starved when there was no wood left to build canoes for fishing.

When Thor Heyerdahl visited in the mid-1950's, there was still a tree on Easter Island living, a toromiro, so not every tree was destroyed, according to, er, Jared Diamond.  In addition, it is clear that there was a substantial drop in population on Easter Island, but life did not stop being sustainable -- as of 2002, there were 2,269 Rapanui (the native Polynesian inhabitants) living on the island (source).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Mea culpa

I am embarassed to admit that yes, I did indeed quote circulation figures to refute Polly's claim about readers.  Mea culpa. I was wrong.

Readership figures for most major newspapers can be found here.  I do not have time right now to re-do the calculations, bu suggestions in the comments of previous posts suggest that the 40% figure is still wrong, but not as wrong as I claimed.  (I would note that the NMA site does not include figures for the FT, the Scotsman or Herald, though of course this is unlikely to affect the outcome significantly.)

Thank you to those who pointed out the error, and thanks to everyone who thinks that factual accuracy is necessary for credibility.


Once again, thank you to everyone who pointed out that when I took Polly to task for saying that Murdoch owned more than 40% of the press readership in this country, I used circulation rather than readership. 

The readership data from the Newspaper Marketing Agency's website seem to look like this for daily papers:

Daily Mail






Daily Express



Daily Star









Daily Mirror



The Times



The Sun



The Telegraph







And like this for the Sundays:


Mail on Sunday



Sunday Express



Daily Star Sunday



The Observer



Independent on Sunday



Sunday Mirror



The People



The Sunday Times



News of the World



Sunday Telegraph







In summary, therefore, News International accounts for 36.2% of the readership of the dailies and 38.1% for the Sundays, or 36.46% on a weighted average basis.  Polly claimed it was over 40%, I claimed it was 32%.  It is interesting that the truth lies almost exactly in the middle.  (Though these figures do exclude the FT, the Scotsman or Herald, and the multitude of local papers -- which would tend to lower the actual figure.)

I am, of course, embarassed to have made the mistake.  As a result, I remain convinced that citing sources is helpful when writers quote figures -- apart from anything it helps the reader to check what they are reading. 

Something about privilege down the ages

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes of:

the old media ownership laws that Margaret Thatcher discarded to allow Murdoch to acquire his hegemonic 40% of all newspaper readership

She's done the Murdoch/40% statistic before, of course, and so have we.  (UPDATE:  See also here.)


She also writes:

At the very least, this is the time to make the pathetic Press Complaints Commission a statutory body. Sir Christopher Meyer has not noticeably been in hot pursuit of the other 300 journalists identified by the information commissioner. His "self-regulation" means that in the past six months, out of 1,681 complaints, the commission only deemed 13 fit to be adjudicated - and only five were upheld.

The figures are here.  They are not for the "past six months", of course, but rather for April to September.  But more interesting is the implication should the PCC should have been adjudicating on more of the 1,681.  Should it perhaps have pursued the 472 cases outside its remit (e.g. those relating to advertising material)?  Should it have pursued the 592 cases were a complainant made an initial contact with the PCC and then failed to take their complaint any further?  Should it perhaps have ignored the 291 instances where an offer of remedial action was made by the editor concerned?

Or would that just make it more difficult to distort the facts?


She also writes:

the BBC risks losing £1.6bn if it only gets a rise of inflation or below, despite bearing the whole cost of turning the country digital.
[emphasis added]

I look forward to finding out to whom in the BBC I should apply to get a refund for my digital set-top box.  Or my digital radio.  And doubtless the rapacious Mr Murdoch will be claiming back from the BBC the cost of BSkyB's investment in digital broadcasting equipment.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Armed with hard facts"? More like a discarded sword of truth someone left lying around

I hate to once again bring up Polly Toynbee's column on Tuesday, and in particular this quote:

FTSE CEOs helped themselves to 30% more this year, while their directors took 28% (against an average pay rise of 2.8%). They now earn at least 76 times the average pay of their staff, when in 1980 it was just 10 times.

I have already addressed the figures in the first sentence, but take the second one.  She used these figures before, for example on 7 July, 2006, when she wrote:

The Work Foundation points to these hard figures: in 1980 top directors in FTSE companies were paid 10 times the average worker in their companies. By 1990 the gap had multiplied to 31.5 times. And by 2002 the top dogs were paid an enormous 75.7 times more than their average employee.

I picked this up at the time and pointed out that the figures she referred to looked not at the pay of all directors, but only the highest paid for each company.  I also said that:

it is not "the average worker in their companies", rather it is the average of "full-time manual employees in the UK." [emphasis added, source is the article I mentioned above].

Now, the average of all manual workers pay is different from the average pay of people working in a FTSE-100 company, as I am sure the employees of, say, 3i or Barclays or Schroders will be able to confirm.

I was delighted to find confirmation of my theory in this, er, Guardian column of 2 October, 2006 which says:

The best-paid [FTSE-100] workers are at London-based financial groups. Top of the pile is venture capital specialist 3i which paid its staff an average of £174,625 each last year

3i, eh?  Who'd have thought it?  Any guesses, by the way, on the discrepancy between the average pay of a manual worker in the UK and £174,625?  Would Polly not be the first to claim it was massive?

Incidentally, there are two other problems in Polly's use of full-time manual employees in the UK as a proxy for FTSE-100 staff.  The Guardian article points out that:

At the other end of the scale is Kazakh copper mining company Kazakhmys, now listed in London, where the average salary of its 64,000 miners is just over £2,000 a year. The British company with the worst-paid employees is retail chain Next, whose staff - many of whom are part-time - earned an average £10,306.

So basically, she is using the pay of full-time manual workers in the UK as a proxy for a workforce which is not all full-time, not all manual and not all in the UK.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ferocious indigestion

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Yesterday, promoting their latest survey of 87 top executives, the CBI said two-thirds complain about tax. Only two-thirds? Who are the one-third who are happy with their taxes? The CBI claims the UK's "burdensome and expensive" tax system is a major factor for the 20% of firms that shifted some operations abroad and the 30% considering it. Again, what's surprising is that they could drum up only a third of executives willing even to "consider" moving bits of their business abroad.

If you look at the actual CBI research (pdf link here), you'll see that the "20%" should be 22%, and that there is overlap between the 22% and the 30% (see page 6 of the report) -- one of the reasons that there were 'only' 30% willing to consider moving operations overseas is that 9% have already moved operations overseas and are not contemplating further moves.


Polly also writes that:

These days most shares belong to ordinary citizens via their pension funds, so it's hardly surprising that people are shocked at so much money all but stolen from public companies at the top.

It's good to see that she's starting to qualify some of the outrageous exaggeration -- only last month it was not "all but stolen" but actually "stolen", and not "most" shares but "all".


She also writes that:

Explosive boardroom pay increases and bonuses distort pay structures, fracturing any sense of proportion or just reward. FTSE CEOs helped themselves to 30% more this year, while their directors took 28% (against an average pay rise of 2.8%). They now earn at least 76 times the average pay of their staff, when in 1980 it was just 10 times.

The 30% figure comes from Watson Wyatt (this will be important later on), though let's just note for now that it is not FTSE CEOs but FTSE-100 CEOs. The 28% figure comes from the Guardian's own research, and refers to last year not this year, but who is going to argue with someone who has a "ferocious appetite for research" and yet can't be bothered to talk to her colleagues? Oh, and the Guardian article referring to the research talks of average earnings increasing at 3.7% a year rather than 2.8%.

Now, she then goes on to say that:

But where is the party to tell them this has to stop? ... [I]n his Today programme interview, [Cameron] said: "I don't think we're going to make the country a happier or better place by capping David Beckham's salary." But David Beckham is not the point. His highly marketable skills are on competitive display: his value matches his goals (and so is steadily falling). But there is no objective measure of the worth of directors and CEOs

Now, if Polly actually did have a ferocious appetite for research, as Andrew Marr claims, she would have looked at last year's Watson Wyatt research (told you it would become important). It revealed that:

chief executives' total remuneration has fallen on average by 7 per cent to £2.1m because the value of their long-term incentives has in many cases been reduced.

Why? Because, according to Watson Wyatt:

Shareholders have understandably been keen to use performance conditions to ensure that the long-term incentives offered to executives are paid out on their actual performance rather than fortunate market conditions. But the performance measures they have imposed have in some cases reduced the real value of the incentives to the executives.

It's almost as if there were a measure of the worth of a CEO -- the performance and arguably health of their company -- and that their pay sometimes falls. Gosh!


She also writes of some research by Nick Isles:

Asked why they are paid so much, the conventional answer is that they suffer more risk on their precarious perches, or that they work in a global market that sets their pay rates. Isles blew the last reason out of the water in his previous research: the global market is a myth, our CEOs are mostly not only homegrown, but promoted from within their firms, and no global market clamours for their talents.

The Isles report she is referring to is called Life at the top: the labour market for FTSE 250 chief executives (pdf link here). Polly refers to this a lot but doesn't actually like citing it, leaving that to others, those who actually do have a ferocious appetite for research (click here [update: sorry, I mean here] and search for '2orangey4crows' a couple of times to see what I mean). What the Isles research shows is that:

The majority [of FTSE-250 CEOs] – nearly 60% – have been with their company for eight years or more. The vast majority of these individuals have moved up the ranks, at least to some degree. A further 6% have been with their firm for between three and eight years, and the remaining 38% have been with their company for three years or fewer.

All right, so not all are brought in from outside, but a non-trivial proportion are relatively new to the company. Three years or fewer in a company before being CEO is hardly working your way up through the ranks. As for "homegrown", the Isles research says:

the vast majority – 86% – are UK citizens.

This is hardly the same as homegrown (Robert Maxwell, anyone?), but we'll let that slide.

Consider for a moment the idea that because so few CEOs are foreign citizens and that almost 60% of them have been with their firms for over 8 years, it can be concluded that there is no global market effect determining their wages. This is tantamount to saying that because city dealers can't have any effect on property prices in London, because there are so few city dealers who buy property. It just doesn't wash.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Meme a little meme of me

Tom Papworth wants to know ten things I would never do, but doesn't think I'll answer.  Let me try and boost that self-esteem.

  1. Trust anything Polly Toynbee says at face value (obviously)
  2. Ignore facts when trying to make up my mind on difficult issues
  3. Assume that logic is the only way of persuading people of something
  4. Respect people who make accusations and then change the subject when they are challenged to produce evidence
  5. Think I have all the answers
  6. Stop getting angry when I read factual inaccuracies in the press -- anywhere in the press, but especially in organs I respect
  7. Forget that quote attributed to Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
  8. Shrug my shoulders, grin and bear it when others' selfishness inconveniences me
  9. Be able to withstand a determined and well-informed charge of hypocrisy
  10. Pass on this meme to others.


A couple of fellow bloggers -- Mr. Eugenides and Not Saussure -- were kind enough to think of me when they read a BBC profile of Polly Toynbee, which included this quote:

Her editor at the Indie was Andrew Marr, a firm Toynbee admirer.

"What makes her stand out as a journalist is not only her strong views," he says, "but also her ferocious appetite for research. In a media world in which too many media columnists simply voice their top-of-the-head opinions, Polly always arrives heavily armed with hard facts."

Regular readers of this blog know, of course, that Polly Toynbee is sloppy with facts, and that she often doesn't read the research she cites. Take, for example, the following "hard" fact.

During her appearance on Question Time last Thursday (video link available here at the time of writing), Polly Toynbee said:

He [Rupert Murdoch] owns over 40% of the readership of the press in this country. [The quote comes at about about 54m00s in the clip]

Now, The Economist puts the figure at 32% (source). The Audit Bureau of Circulations claims that The Times and Sun have a readership of 656,278 and 3,107,412 respectively, out of a total of 12, 159, 237 -- or 31%. For the Sundays, the relevant figures are 1,287,099, 3,445,459 and 13,081,023 respectively -- or 36%. [Note that the ABC website can provide the data, but there is no way to link directly to the results.]

So Murdoch "owns" 31% of daily readership and 36% of Sunday readership for national papers -- call it 32% as a weighted average. And note that these are overestimates; it excludes the hundreds of thousands of local paper readers.

Maybe by "hard" facts, Marr meant facts that are difficult to understand...

UPDATE: Please see here for a discussion of the 32% number -- I used circulation rather than readership here, which was wrong.  However, the actual figure is still below 42%.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Not "all there"

Polly Toynbee was on BBC1's Question Time last night, and she said:

We saw child poverty in this country -- and this is all there in this document -- go from 14% in 1979 to 33%
[you can watch it online here -- quote comes at about minute 38]

She's used these figures before, of course, without noting the inconsistency between the two series from which the numbers are taken.  However, it's not "all there in this document" which actually says:

The growth of child poverty on the relative measure was particularly alarming, with a rate of 12% in 1979 rising to 27% by 1992.
[.doc link here]

Lies, damned lies, and...

On 19 February 2001, the Guardian carried an extract from Polly Toynbee and David Walker's book "Did Things Get Better?" which said:

A quarter of the 4m poor children have been lifted out of poverty.

On 29 October 2004, Polly wrote that:

Through tax credits, most experts agree, a million children have been lifted out of poverty

which is admirably consistent, though displays a troubling lack of progress over the three and half year between the two articles.  On 10 March 2006, Polly Toynbee wrote:

700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty since 1998

Which worryingly suggests things were getting worse.  On 7 July 2006, she wrote:

The first quarter-way target was missed as 700,000, and not a million children, were lifted out of poverty.

Apparently someone must have inadvertently given the impression that a million children had been lifted out of poverty.  On 27 September 2006, she wrote of:

800,000 fewer poor children

Which at least suggests a resumption of progress.  However, in yesterday's column, we're back to:

But by stealth Labour has lifted 700,000 children above the poverty line

Confused?  You may not be the only one...

[I am in the debt of Xobbo,  whose comment on yesterday's CiF column gave a hint that something was awry...]

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

At least the notoreity hasn't changed her

Polly Toynbee writes on CommentisFree that:

In 1979 14% of children lived below the poverty line: that rose to 33% by 1996.

Sadly, these two figures come from two inconsistent sources -- the Family Expenditure Survey and the Family Resources Survey -- and cover different geographies -- the UK and Great Britain (source).

When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber

Polly Toynbee was on the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, being asked about Greg Clark's suggestion, reported in the Guardian, that she should replace Churchill as the inspiration for the Tory party's view of the welfare state.  She said that people were sick of:

the city paying themselves a 28% pay increase this year and year after year after year

(You can hear the interview via the Today website.  She was interviewed at about 8:47am this morning).

To what can she have been referring?  Certainly not pay in the city -- that only went up by 13% (source).  Maybe she means the pay of directors of FTSE-100 companies.  According to the Guardian, this did indeed go up by 28% this year, but not "year after year after year" as, to quote the same Guardian article:

The previous year directors' pay rose 16%, following rises of 13% and 23%.

It is troubling that Greg Clark was impressed by her "effective analysis".

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Partial, and indeed partial

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes of Bolingbroke hospital that:

[i]t has a day hospital for some 15 elderly patients, with out-patients and imaging diagnostics.

This at best partial, it also provides a GP out of hours surgery, podiatry and community dental services (source).


She also writes that:

...empty wards cost a fortune, not counting the heat billowing out, which can't be cut off in unused wings. St George's trust, which owns this hospital, has to pay a percentage on all its capital assets to the NHS, under an accounting system designed to ensure that assets are not underused...

Unused capital and land does of course incur a cost, and it is good to see this recognised.  However, some empty wards are more costly than others.

One of the reasons people are upset about the planned closure of the Bolingbroke hospital is that the NHS trust spent around £2m refurbishing the hospital months before announcing its closure in 2005.  It was at best economic with the truth when talking about the cost of the refurbishment, originally claiming it spent around £600,00.  The refurbishment also failed to rectify fire hazards in the hospital, which had been known about since 1989 (see, for example, this news story).

This isn't to say that the hospital should close, of course.  We all find ourselves susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy -- throwing good money after bad.  It does, however, mean that there are legitimate concerns to be raised about the financial and managerial acuity of those involved in local healthcare provision. 

For Polly to claim that opponents of the closure -- generally from people from political parties of which she doesn't approve -- are running  "mendacious" local campaigns without actually citing a specific example of mendacity, and to decry this as "pure politics", seems, well, hypocritical.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Present, if not correct

Today sees Polly's third appearance this month in the Corrections and Clarifications column, which picks up on my suggestion last Tuesday that Nick Gilodi-Johnson's father couldn't be the owner of Farepak, as he died over five years ago. It says:

We gave the impression in a comment article that the owner of Farepack is the father of Nick Gilodi-Johnson (The Farepack scandal lays bare a gross inequality, page 35, November 14). His father Bob Johnson, who founded the company, died in 2001.

Farepack, you'll notice, rather than Farepak. Still, baby steps. Baby steps.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Inaccurate précis

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

The Nuffield's eminent group of professors of law, medicine and ethics drew up the guidelines...

The group was actually wider than this. It also included campaigners, a doctor of social anthropology, a health economist, and a solicitor (source).

She also says that:

They recommend that babies born before 23 weeks should not be resuscitated, as only 1% of these survive and a high proportion of those will suffer severe disabilities. Between 23 and 24 weeks the prognosis is poor - most die and two-thirds of the survivors end up disabled - but they say parents should make the final decision. Once a baby reaches 25 weeks, intensive care should normally be given, and half will live.

In fact, the report (pdf link available here) makes a very clear distinction between babies after 23 and 24 weeks. To quote from paragraph 23 of the executive summary:

(c) Between 24 weeks, 0 days and 24 weeks, six days of gestation, normal practice should be that a baby will be offered full invasive intensive care and support from birth and admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit, unless the parents and the clinicians are agreed that in the light of the baby’s condition (or likely condition) it is not in his or her best interests to start intensive care. (d) Between 23 weeks, 0 days and 23 weeks, six days of gestation, it is very difficult to predict the future outcome for an individual baby based on current clinical evidence for babies born at this gestation as a whole. Precedence should be given to the wishes of the parents regarding resuscitation and treatment of their baby with invasive intensive care. However, when the condition of a baby indicates that he or she will not survive for long, clinicians are not legally obliged to proceed with treatment wholly contrary to their clinical judgement, if they judge that treatment would be futile

In neither of these scenarios do they say "parents should make the final decision" -- in (c) if the parents don't want treatment but the clinicians do, the paper will be offered "full invasive intensive care and support from birth". And in (d), if the parents want treatment, they point out that clinicians are not obliged to proceed -- "precedence" is given to the wishes of the parents, not final decision-making rights.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Doesn't let death get in the way

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Occasionally the stage curtain is twitched back to expose the way things are.

So true. After claiming a couple of times that City bonuses were £21bn (e.g. on 22 August and again on 15 September) -- a claim which I pointed out at the time was erroneous -- in today's column we get:

When the trade minister Ian McCartney told MPs to fork out a day's pay for Farepak, he should have turned on the City's £8.8bn bonuses instead.

With no blush at the misplaced £12bn. Such is the contempt she has for the facts and for her readers.


However, it is not all about former errors corrected. She also writes:

Here are families from the 30% who own nothing... They will never own a home like the 70% majority...

She's made this claim before, and it was as wrong now as it was then.


She also asks:

Why has Ed Balls just promised banks they will never be windfalled despite soaring profits (HBOS £2.6bn, HSBC £6.7bn - thanks to consumer debt of £1.25tn)?

You'll note that these figures are actually half-year and not full-year profit figures, according to the, er, Guardian.


She also writes that:

The director Nick Gilodi-Johnson, the son of Farepak's owner, had an estimated share dividend from the parent company EHR of £445,000, on top of his pay, and stands to inherit £75m.

If you're wondering how Farepak has both an owner and a parent company, wonder no longer. Bob Johnson (Nick's father) founded the company but no longer owns it. We can be sure of this, because he died in 2001.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Some are odder than others

In her column on Friday, Polly wrote:

British women are odd: traditionally, in France, Germany and Italy women lean to the left and men lean rightwards; but in Britain the right only ever won on the women's vote.

In 1979, 1983 and 1987, occasions on which the right can be have said to have won, men voted clearly for the Tories. In 1979, 45% voted Tory to 38% Labour, in 1983 it was 46% to 30% and in 1987 it was 44% to 31%, according to Table 2 of "Gender and Contemporary British Politics" by Pippa Norris (pdf link available here). I'd have fancied their chances, even without the women's vote.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Contradictory thought deathmatch

From today's column:

Abolish the "provocation" defence for jealous men who kill their wives.


John Reid's announcement yesterday of yet more criminal-justice legislation hardly feels like refreshment: Labour's 59 obsessive criminal-justice bills have often been repealed before they have been enacted.

Jam on the breaks

I suggested some months ago that I needed to take more breaks, and the evidence base is growing. While I was on a break last month, Polly wrote a piece entitled "Only a fully secular state can protect women's rights", which today prompted this correction:

We said in a comment piece, Only a fully secular state can protect women's rights, October 17, page 33, that white parents had taken over four church secondary schools in Tower Hamlets, making them virtually all white. No maintained primary or secondary school in Tower Hamlets has a proportion of white pupils higher than 71%.

A more finely tuned bullshit radar

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

at the 2005 election women and men voted identically.

Of course, the only way of getting to this is through polls, which are numerous and often contradictory.  But that should call therefore for greater precision when discussing results, not less.  There is indeed a source which claims that men and women intended to vote in almost identical ways -- the table at the bottom of this report by the BBC.  However, read it carefully, and you'll see that it does not talk about how people actually voted -- it is a sum of all campaign polls, of intentions in other words.

However, if you look at the polls which ask about how people actually voted, you'll see the big differences.  Take this:

One major surprise for Labour was contained in the final campaign polls for ICM and Populus which showed that women were crucial to Labour's victory last night.

Both pollsters showed that women were far less likely to vote Conservative - only 27% - than men, 33% of whom backed the Tories. Instead, 25% of women turned to the Liberal Democrats and 39% backed Labour. This compared with 20% of men voting for the Lib Dems and 37% for Labour.

Which came from the, er, Guardian.  The Fawcett Society found something very similar:

At the general election 2005, Labour polled higher support among women than among men, with support at 38% and 34% respectively.
[p2 of "Fawcett/ Ipsos MORI briefing on women’s votes, September 2006".  Word document available here]

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Her id is safe!

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Social mobility has come to a halt, crushed by this new era of mega-greed.

Social mobility has come to a halt?  Even the much reported upon paper by Blanden, Gregg and Machin, called "Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America" (headlines included: 'UK low in social mobility league, says charity' in the Guardian) showed that for men born in the 1970's, if their father's income was in the bottom quartile, they stood a 37% chance of also having income in the bottom quartile (see table 1 in their paper; pdf link here). 

Now, for complete social mobility, that could be 25%, but to say that you have a better than 3 in 5 chance of escaping bottom-quartile incomes is not social mobility "come to a halt".


She writes that:

Mori finds that about 80% of people support the idea of ID cards

In the same survey, only 27% said they knew "[a] great deal" or "[a] fair amount" about the ID card scheme -- 39% knew "[j]ust a little", 28% had "[h]eard of it, but know nothing about it" and 6% had never heard of it.

It seems curious to be so approving of the MORI position, and yet also think that "[t]he public cavil endlessly at politicians while wallowing in wilful ignorance and bitter prejudice," as Polly does.


On 18 July, Polly wrote:

The eyes of would-be nuclear builders, meanwhile, are on Areva, the French government- subsidised company building in Finland the first new nuclear station anywhere in decades.

And I took her to task here, pointing out that in 2004, 27 nuclear power constructions worldwide were under constuction.

Today, she writes of:

proliferating nuclear power stations

I am gald that the message is (very) slowly and unevenly getting through.


Incidentally, contrast her approval of citizens' views on what makes them feel safer when they happen to agree with her in today's column:

As for CCTV, when Mori asks local communities what would make their areas safer, street cameras always come in the top three. It's easy to see why: people on an estate I know say CCTV helped transform the only local shopping street, which had been rife with drugs and prostitution.

With the despairing, "why don't they understand?" take on citizens' views on how safe they feel when they happen to disagree with Polly, from 22 April, 2005.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Drawing her own conclusions

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes about a report "buried" by the DWP (here on their website), in which Lisa Harker:

concludes with this overwhelming truth: "The major drivers of poverty - such as high levels of wage and wealth inequality - remain considerable impediments towards reaching the 2020 child-poverty target, suggesting that far greater changes to the distribution of wealth, earnings and opportunity in society will be necessary."

The quote (actually not a full sentence, despite Polly's punctuation) is not the conclusion of the report at all, it is from the executive summary.  And it is not even from the final sentence.  In fact, the sentence following the one from which the quote was taken begins "But, ...".

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Polly now gets stealth-edited to remove the errors

In today's "Corrections and clarifications" column in the Guardian, there is this:

A headline in last week's Catholic Herald read "Three days to save our Catholic schools", not "Three days to save our faith schools" (Government cowardice could be the death of us all, page 33, October 31).

Which refers, of course, to Polly's most recent column, which I wrote about here. Clearly, I need to use pictures rather than words more often.


Interestingly, the Guardian appears to stealth-edit errors out of articles online. Readers with long memories will remember that in August this year, Polly referred to Bill Rammell as the MP for Harrow West rather than for Harlow. A pretty curious error, as it can't have been a slip on the keyboard (L is nowhere near R and in any case it is difficult to accidentally type "West"), but be that as it may, it was corrected here on August 24th, which says:

Contrary to what we said in a column, The Byers plan deliberately ignores obscene inequality, page 27 (Comment), August 22, the higher education minister Bill Rammell is not the MP for Harrow West. His constituency is Harlow.

If, however, you now go to Polly's column, the original error has been airbrushed out of history. It now says:

Bill Rammell, the higher education minister and MP for Harlow, said sharply...

As opposed to the original, which said:

Bill Rammell, the higher education minister and MP for hyper-marginal Harrow West, said sharply...

Given that the Guardian has edited this, it is difficult to source authoritatively, but I have copied and pasted the above quote from the cache on my PC, and you can also see the Pendant's contemporaneous copy and paste here.

For shame.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Know nothing press

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

parents still overwhelmingly oppose religious schools - by 64% in a Guardian/ICM poll.

Actually, it's not parents, they don't oppose religious schools (but they do oppose state funding) and the, er, Guardian thinks that the timing of the poll may have affected the results:

The survey reveals that following last month's terror attacks, the majority of the public are uneasy about the proposals, with 64% agreeing that "the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind". (source)


She also writes:

Catholics led the charge, with "Three days to save our faith schools" blazoned across the Catholic Herald.

At the time of writing, you could see the front page on the Catholic Herald website, which clearly shows the headline to be "Three days to save our Catholic schools". It takes a rare skill to be able to misquote a "blazoned" headline.


She also writes:

But the UK and Denmark are the only countries where drinking is on the rise.

Here, her research methodology is unusually clear -- she read yesterday's paper, when Martin Plant had a letter published in the Guardian which said:

Britain is the only country in western Europe (apart from Denmark) where alcohol consumption is still rising. (source)

Note the omission of "in western Europe" from Polly's column. In fact, there are many countries where alcohol consumption is on the increase. At the World Resources Institute online database, for example, you can pull up litres of alcohol consumed per adult in a number of countries with trends -- and it shows increases in countries from Albania to Zimbabwe.


UPDATE: Mr Eugenides has written to me, taking a break from posting the sublime, to point out that when Polly writes:

alcohol now costs 54% less in real terms than it did in 1980.

it contrasts with the Economic and Social Research Council's take on it:

In real terms, since 1981 the price of alcohol relative to incomes has decreased by 54 per cent.
[emphasis added]

Which is of course not the same thing at all.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Anyone have a bridge that needs painting?

There's more from Polly's column today (see previous post for the bulk of it, though).  Polly writes:

On behalf of shareholders, simple questions should be put: why do directors pay themselves obscene sums, a 28% rise in the boardrooms this year, all of it stolen from citizens' pension funds and Peps?
[emphasis added]

Compare that with this, from the Guardian on 2 October 2006:

Directors' pay at Britain's top companies soared by 28% last year, more than seven times the rate of average pay and 11 times the current rate of inflation.
[emphasis added]

Now just plain making stuff up

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes about the proposed companies bill, and specifically a clause to require companies to disclose information about their suppliers.  She writes:

The Financial Times all this week has run a loud and intimidating campaign against one clause, with a front-page splash and yesterday's thundering leader attacking industry minister Margaret Hodge. The subclause they oppose is the only item in this monumental bill that concedes anything to the lobby for stronger corporate social responsibility to protect the environment and communities.

This is part of a broader charge against the FT, that it has become the mouthpiece of the CBI:

The growing influence of the CBI over the once independent-minded and more nuanced Financial Times is sad to behold: now that its former editor Richard Lambert heads the CBI, he seems to not only adopt belligerent CBI narrow-mindedness but to cast the FT under the CBI's sway too.

Actually, the FT leader (link here, possibly requiring a subscription) is less than thundering in its criticism of the clause:

Yet the harm is less in the clause than in how it was introduced.

The FT leader agrees with Polly that on the face of it the clause requires something similar to the Operating and Financial Reviews that were originally proposed, but then vetoed by Gordon Brown.  In fact, the FT says:

At first sight, the new proposal for companies to disclose information about suppliers looks similar to the government plans for statutory operating and financial reviews (OFRs) that were in the bill until the Treasury decided to scrap them. This type of broader business commentary can help to focus attention on strategic questions beyond the next quarterly earnings figures. But the original OFR proposals were firmly underpinned by detailed accounting standards in a way that the current plans are not. This makes them harder for businesses to interpret. The DTI promises guidance: that must emphasise that the information need be given only where it is material and is at directors' discretion. Even then, there are likely to be high-profile and costly legal challenges as the non-governmental organisations that have pressed for the proposal try out how it is being applied in practice.

Read that carefully -- the complaint is not about the requirement to report, but rather that the requirement to do so in an ambiguous way generates uncertainty.

Indeed, Polly complains that:

The spectacle of the CBI and the Institute of Directors in full war cry is enough to frighten any government. How arrogantly they stamp, rampage and threaten mere elected politicians.

(I think in psychology this is called projection).  However, compare that with the FT leader which says that:

In their dealings with government, businesses should not always expect to get their own way. They do need consultation and certainty.

Thus, apparently, the mouthpiece of the CBI in full war cry, arrogantly stamping, rampaging and threatening.


Polly also writes:

An ICM poll shows that 90% of the public want companies to be legally obliged to report on their social responsibilities

Actually, according to the CORE press release (downloadable here):

90% of voters think that “the Government should set out enforceable rules to ensure companies are ‘socially responsible’, for example to ensure companies do not damage the environment.”

That's not "legally obliged to report".


When writing about CORE, Polly Toynbee writes:

Campaigners for greater openness are the Corporate Responsibility Coalition (Core) and the Trade Justice Movement, with over 130 organisations and 9 million members.

CORE represents 130 organisations, and the TJM claims to be:

a coalition of over 80 UK organisations with over 9 million individual members.
(source is a pdf, link here)

That's not having 9 million members.  The list of member organisations is here, and includes, for example, the Church of England and UNISON.  I think it's a bit rich to describe their members as being members of the TJM.


Polly also writes:

But imagine a government that dared stand up to them [i.e. CBIand IoD].  On behalf of shareholders, simple questions should be put: why do directors pay themselves obscene sums, a 28% rise in the boardrooms this year, all of it stolen from citizens' pension funds and Peps?

Skip lightly over the rhetoric about "stolen", and that of course shareholders do ask these sorts of questions without needing the state to do it for them according to the Observer, but consider the implication for a moment that the only shareholders in UK companies are pension funds and PEPs, and rightly discard it for the ill-informed and facile assumption that it is.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


In today's column about Velcade, Polly Toynbee writes:

Disgracefully, Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, claimed at the weekend that he would prescribe the drug, adding an absurd promise that he would also "renegotiate" its price with the manufacturers. As if.

Paying no attention to Nice's rebuttal, ITV's The Sunday Edition paraded three patients with bone-marrow cancer desperately seeking the drug, understandably anxious for any shred of extra hope. Who wouldn't be?

Andrew Lansley's interview on The Sunday Edition is, at the time of writing, available online here.  What he actually said was:

I think we should give patients the drug and allow the NHS to negotiate with the drug company concerned, Johnson and Johnson, in order to arrive at a price for the drug that is cost-effective.  Because, the problem is at the moment that NICE have no ability to negotiate with the drug company.  The price is given.

When asked by the interviewer:

So you are very clear then that if you were Health Secretary, and indeed the current Healthy Secretary should give the drug to myeloma sufferers now?

He replied:

Yes, through that process [the one described above] and I do have to be clear about this.  Because there is no point in having NICE and then taking the decision yourself.  They do a professional job at trying to assess cost-effectiveness.  But the price is given to them.  They can't negotiate it.  I think what the NHS should be doing, what the Secreatry of State should be doing is negotiating the price with the drug company, doing in effect a risk-sharing deal with drug company so the NHS can continue to treat patients and depending on the effectiveness of the drug... I mean Jacky [one of the three sufferers who were "paraded" by ITV on the television.  Note that their website is here] was saying to us just a few minutes ago she thinks it can prolong life by two or three years.  Well, if that is proven in a population of myeloma sufferers who get the drug, then actually it would be a cost-effective drug.

This is not Lansley trying to "prescribe" the drug -- not something which would be terribly practical in any case for someone who is not a doctor.


Polly also writes:

Scotland has approved it for only a tiny number of patients in the last weeks of life.

Actually, no.  The SMC says that Velcade is:

accepted for use within NHS Scotland for the treatment of patients with multiple myeloma who have already received at least two therapies, have seen their disease progress on the last therapy and who are unresponsive to alternative licensed treatments for this stage of the disease. [Source]

This is not the same as "in the last weeks of life."


She also says that:

Its first trial of strength with the drug companies was its defining moment. When Nice said no to the flu drug Relenza (except for exceptional conditions), Glaxo threatened to pull out of Britain in revenge. Nice held firm, Glaxo stayed.

Actually, Frank Dobson said no to Relenza (source) in October 1999.  Sir Richard Sykes complained about "recently enforced price cuts" and criticised "the government's innaction over parallel imports" and "condemned the goverment's failure to maintain the level of science study among sixth formers despite its claim to favour a science and technology-based society." (source).  According to the Guardian:

Although the spokesman said Glaxo - which spends more than 50% of its research budget in, but derives only 6% of its sales from, the UK - was not threatening to move offshore, he added: "These factors call into question the attractiveness of the UK to a global company." The company suggested that others in the sector might also consider moving out of the UK.

"If you continue to make the environment antagonistic to this industry then by defini tion it will start to move elsewhere," said Sir Richard.

That's not a threat to pull out of Britain.

Nonetheless, NICE "held firm" for about a year before the Guardian was reporting that "Relenza receives limited approval" in November 2000 (source).

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Wariness replaced by weariness

I'll be taking a break until the end of October.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

In a manor secret

In today's column, Polly Toynbee refers to the Coleshill Manor story. She thinks it employs a

secret staff of 50

So secret, in fact, that they advertise for jobs (see here for Google's cache of a now expired job advertisment, which was running on 21 June). So secret that Michael Howard publicised his visit to it on election day 2005 (source). So secret that the Telegraph had a story about it in March 2005.

The funding mechanism for it may be contentious, but the staff are not secret.


She still has trouble accurately reproducing quotes. She claims Cameron said:

"the government which instinctively believes everything is the state's responsibility"

He actually said:

"These last nine years have been the story of a Government which instinctively believes, whatever it says, that everything is the state's responsibility," (source, emphasis added).

She claims he said:

"People, families, communities, businesses, to step up to the plate and ... actively do good things."

He actually said:

"We need people, families, communities, businesses to step up to the plate and understand that it's not just about stopping the bad things, it's about actively doing the good things" (source, emphasis added).

Friday, September 29, 2006

And she thinks he's an attack dog?

In today's column, Polly Toynbee quotes extensively from:

Deborah Mattinson, the chief executive of Opinion Leader Research

A shame she doesn't bother to get the job title right.


She writes about Frank Luntz's polling exercise for Newsnight thus:

He must have been excited by a spectacular item on Newsnight. The US pollster Frank Luntz explored the popularity of Labour's possible leadership contenders. He showed brief video clips of each to 30 Labour-minded voters, who turned dials up and down as they watched each contender speak. Most of the candidates' clips seemed chosen for pallid dullness - except for the crucial two: one showed Brown a bit hesitant when interviewed under pressure after the coup attempt. The other showed Reid in full-on harangue: "Any court judgment that puts the human rights of foreign prisoners ahead of the safety and security of millions of British citizens is wrong! Full stop. No qualification!" Of course Reid beat Brown by miles. (Watch it yourself on the Newsnight website).

It certainly is worth watching. At the time of writing, you could watch it here. I would thoroughly recommend it; Polly is distorting it quite badly. The session lasted three hours, and even before the video clips -- long before the video clips -- initial reactions were gathered, just using photographs of the candidates. At this stage, only one out of the panel of thirty thought that Gordon Brown could lead the Labour party to victory in the next general election (about 2m05s), and someone who knows their Shakespeare better than Polly describes Brown as "Brutus", again long before the videos are shown (about 5m20s). Polly also neglects to mention the strong, positive response to Brown giving a speech (at about 8m30s).

And, of course, the quote she attributes to Reid is not what he actually said (at about 12m05s in the video clip), which was:

Any court judgment that puts human rights of foreign prisoners ahead of the human right to safety and security of the millions of the UK citizens is a wrong decision. Full stop. No qualification.

After Wednesday's inaccurate quote, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. But I confess to still being shocked when I see a quality newspaper print something in quote marks which was not said.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The un-quote

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes of Blair's farewell speech:

The deftness of his opening Cherie joke - "She won't run off with the bloke next door" - was all the reminder they needed.

I'm enough of an old-fashioned pedant to think that when you put something between quote marks, it should be what someone actually said. Polly clearly disagrees. What Blair actually said was:

"At least I don't have to worry about her running off with the bloke next door."

This is according to the Guardian, the BBC, the Herald, the Telegraph, The Times, the Independent, the Financial Times, the Mirror, and, well, you get point. You can even watch the speech here -- the quote comes at about 1m50s.

Polly's disdain for the truth is a thing of wonder.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Whoa, Manchester

In today's column, Polly Toynbee writes:

Labour rules on the mandate of just a quarter of the electorate.

Would that it were a quarter of the electorate, in fact it is comfortably below (source).

And rules? Rules? I thought they governed.


His good idea this week has been devolving within Whitehall - at last creating a sensible divide between the board (ministers) setting the direction and the executive (trained professionals) running things.

Make that last week.


There is no reason not to start by introducing the alternative vote right away - giving voters the right to place their preferences in 1,2,3 order instead of an X. [...] Jack Straw, Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn are among diverse recent alternative-vote converts.

There is a very good reason -- it is called Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, which proves that no voting system which relies on ranked preferences can produce a fair result if there are more than two options (the original article was published in the Journal of Political Economy in 1950). The Alternative Vote system (aka Instant-runoff voting) has a number of flaws -- e.g. it is possible for Candidate 1 to be elected even if a majority of voters prefer Candidate 2 to Candidate 1 (see the wikipedia page on Alternative Vote for more detail). Now, this doesn't mean we shouldn't introduce AV, but it does show that it is flawed, it is one of several necessarily flawed alternatives, and we need to work out what problem we're trying to solve before introducing something "right away".

And since when were three middle-aged white men considered diverse?

A little White truth-seeking

On GU's Labour conference podcast yesterday (MP3 here), hosted by her colleague Mike White, Polly Toynbee said this (about 14m50s in):

TOYNBEE: ... Tony Blair took such a very different view about Iraq to all of the rest of the people of Europe, who were 90% against going into Iraq, so it was we who stuck out like a sore thumb on that...

WHITE: Ooh, I'm going to check that percent.

You'd be wise to, Mike. Start with Pew, who on 18 March 2003 (pdf link here) showed that opposition in France was 75%, and 69% in Germany. Go on to Gallup, who in January 2003 didn't show opposition at or exceeding 90% in any European country. Even Noam Chomsky doesn't quite have the audacity to claim 90% opposition. On 9 March 2003 he said:

In Italy, it's reached almost 90 percent opposition to war under any conditions, and close to that in Spain. [emphasis added]

To be fair, one poll did show 91% opposition in Spain, but this was after the war started, and is hardly pan-European.

Friday, September 22, 2006

National press unreliable? I wonder why.

In today's column (see previous post for link), Polly also writes:

There is a sharp difference between recent patients and those who draw their view only from media anecdotage or from bad-mouthing friends among the 1.2 million grumbling NHS staff. Polling shows that patients are overwhelmingly pleased with their GPs and hospitals - but voters who haven't used hospitals are unreasonably dissatisfied.

Again, the actual research is less shrill (see post below for link to it).  For starters, the polling clearly does not show that people "who haven't used hopsitals are unreasonably dissatistified" -- there is reliable no way of testing the "reasonableness" of their dissatisfaction.

As for where people get there information about the NHS, the situation is more nuanced than "media anecdotage" and friends who work for the NHS.  Page 8 of the research shows that people also get their information from leaflets, direct mail, and from friends who don't work in the NHS.  The most favourable source of information (leaflets in GPs' surgeries) are also thought to be the most reliable (only 12% think them unreliable).  The most unfavourable source of information (the national press) is also thought to be least reliable (51% find the national press unreliable.  I can't think why).


Polly also writes:

...the NHS is flush with cash. Pay rises have made UK doctors and nurses the best-paid in the EU: dentists now earn £150,000pa.

Compare that with this quote from Liam Byrne in Hansard:

Most dentists who provide national health service primary dental care services are not paid on a salaried basis, but through a system of NHS fees and other payments that go towards the costs of running a dental practice as well as the dentist's net income.

[...]  DPB payment data show that on average, a dentist with a reasonable NHS commitment in 2004–05 in the GDS received gross GDS income of about £154,350. Dentists with a reasonable commitment are defined as those with gross fee earnings of £59,100 or more. These averages covered some 7,640 GDS principal dentists who worked throughout the year 2004–05.  HM Revenue and Customs information from dentists' tax returns show that the average ratio of expenses to gross earnings for a highly committed NHS dentist is around 52 per cent. (2003–04 tax year). The same source gives average net income of a highly committed NHS dentist from all sources as £78,600 in the tax year 2003–04. Average expenses were about £85,200. This information is taken from the tax returns of 392 GDS principal dentists who were in non-associate business arrangements for whom the tax year ended between January and March 2004.

Based on the data from these sources, the Department estimates that a highly committed GDS dentist earns an average NHS income of around £80,000 in 2005–06.

This is not the same as earning £150,000 a year -- you do actually have to deduct the expenses.