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.


Anonymous said...

Possibly the saddest blog I've ever had the misfortune of reading. GET A LIFE and MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Alan said...

Anonymous - before this blog common courtesy mean't that you'd give polly the benefit of the doubt, even though you suspected something wasn't quite right. As it happens Polly doesn't deal with facts, she makes things up. I for one am grateful that her blatant lying is exposed. Keep up the good work.

FactcheckingPollyanna said...

Anonymous -- I was initially inclined to discount your argument because of the spurious superlative, the fact that you're prepared to offer me advice without knowing who I am or who I spend the other 167 hours a week and the non sequiturs. But your use of GRATUITOUS CAPITALS has won me over. WELL DONE.

Alan -- thank you. Researching this blog has taught me alot, which I quite enjoy.

John said...

I have to agree with the first post. Pedantically picking through Toynbee's columns without even offering your opinion does seem a bit pointless.

So in light of these errors do you think the thrust of her argument is invalidated?

I'd be more inclined to back your campaign if it looked more widely at the media. At the moment it just looks like you're a bit weird, and for some reason have an axe to grind with Toynbee.

FactcheckingPollyanna said...

John --

This was precisely why I wrote the "About me" piece that I did. I do not think inaccuracy is OK just because I agree with the broad thrust of an argument, and so my view is irrelevant. Whether I think faith schools are a bad thing or a good thing has no bearing on what the headline of the Catholic Herald was, or the fact that Polly has a gift for inaccurate quotation.

I'm not sure how else to "campaign" -- letters and emails to the Corrections column of the Guardian go unanswered, and I don't think that factchecking the entire UK media is really compatible with having a full-time job.

In any case, I don't think "others do it too" is a defense for inaccuracy any more than "oh, but I agree with what she says, so it's OK that she just makes stuff up" is.

I don't have an axe to grind with Polly, who I'm sure as an individual has a mix of strengths and weaknesses which are at once unique and delightful, as well as typical and human. However, I do have an axe to grind with her reporting style, which is sloppy with the facts. I think her arguments deserve better.

As for the ad hominem "weird" stuff, I can but smile wryly.

David W said...

I certainly hope that you are not dissuaded from your fact checking efforts by the postings here today. Polly is an incredibly sloppy journalist, and far too many Guardian readers appear to perceive her poorly researched musings as gospel. Please keep up the good work and let us hope that one day her editor will see the light!

Stephen said...

I've just found this site today. I'm glad it exists. Miss Toynbee is slovenly and self-satisfied in her opinion-making, yet she has her credulous followers. Together they have all the failings they claim their targets to have: bigotry, intolerance, hypocrisy, credulity and ignorance. Your website therefore fills a need.

I shall be pleased to return regularly.

Mr Eugenides said...

Agree with previous two commenters. The omissions, elisions and fabrications exposed by FP vary in magnitude; some are major, others trifling. But taken as a whole, twice a week for 50-odd weeks a year, the picture is a devastating one.

If Polly were a ranter or a humorous columnist, these mistakes might be understandable. But she is not; she presents herself as someone who cuts through the bullshit and makes judgements based on analysis of facts rather than rhetoric, the "real-world" effect of spending rather than spin, and so on.

In that context it is important that there are people out there willing to spend a wee bit of time checking if what we are being told is true. Quite often, it isn't.

John Miller said...

Hey welcome back - missed you.
By the way, anonymous (and there's a telling name...) I for one welcome the exemplary constructive criticism shown on this blog that is missing from the newspapers, TV and radio. It takes an immense amount of time to do the research - which is why so few people do it, preferring instead to use their imagination, rather than deal in hard facts.