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.