How the Mail uses numbers to fool you

While the Daily Mail often uses exaggerated or misleading figures in many of its immigration scare stories, most of the time the figures are actually irrelevant. What's important for the paper is to continue to peddle anti-immigration stories. Whether they're based on sound arguments or figures that actually back them up is not important to the paper. As long as there are some numbers to throw around that sound sufficiently high, they'll be chucked into a story to give the illusion that they back the story up. Take the article I blogged about yesterday - an entire outraged rant about how many foreigners have been added to the electoral register that doesn't once tell us how many actually have been added. Because the point of the story isn't to impart news or to give us any useful information, but to tell the paper's readers - who the editor assumes are anti-immigration - what they want to hear.

There's another great example today in 'More than a million immigrants live in homes paid for by the taxpayer', which is also a handy example of how the paper can distort reports that say anything that contradict its anti-immigration stance to make it look as though they actually say the opposite.

The numbers in this story, such as they are, amount to saying that more than a million immigrants live in social housing (the 'paid for by the taxpayer' is a bit of a stretch, since Council tenants do have to pay rent), 'one in nine subsidised homes is now occupied by a migrant family' and 'Housing queues have lengthened by more than half in England since 1997. In London and the South East they have nearly doubled'.

These are given entirely out of context. How many non-immigrants live in social housing? How many subsidised homes are occupied by non-immigrant families? How many immigrants are there in the UK anyway? Is a million immigrants disproportionately high? Has the number of available properties it's possible to allocate dropped?

We're not told any of these things, but the tone of the article leaves us in no doubt that this is to be seen as a bad thing - language like 'one in nine subsidised homes is now occupied' is there to give us the impression that this represents an increase - especially as it follows this gem of a sentence:
It said the number of foreigners in council or housing association accommodation had soared over the past five years.
It is said, is it? By who? Is it justified? We're not told. The 'it is said' is there so the paper doesn't have to make a direct claim that it can't back up. We're given the impression of a rise without any evidence to back it up and without the paper telling us there is in its own words.

The first four fifths of the article - eight sentence/paragraphs of a ten sentence/paragraph story - are there to give us what the paper wants us to think is actually happening before giving this partial withdrawal:
The Equality Commission's report said there was no sign of bias in favour of foreigners but acknowledged that the perception of unfairness was widespread.
By the time the reader has got this far (if they ever do), they've read through a story that is clearly intended to give the impression that the out of context figures it includes are unusually high and represent numbers 'soaring'. In perfect 'Withdrawn!' fashion, the comments of the EHRC are made to look wrong, stupid or lies, by setting the whole thing out to look as though the Commission found all these sorts of high figures and despite it all came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of a bias.

In fact, this is about as far from the truth as we'd expect a Daily Mail immigration scare story to be. The actual interim findings the story is based on (the actual study won't be published until later in the year) is heralded by a press release about it on the Equality Commission website with the title 'New study shows no evidence of bias against UK born families in social housing allocation'. The conclusion is arrived at precisely because of the sort of figures the Mail tries to scare us with, mainly because the percentage of immigrants in social housing - 18% - is roughly the same as that for the British-born population - 17%. Removing the context makes the numbers look more scary.

But not scary enough. The EHRC interim report doesn't actually include the figures as the Mail represents them, and one has been exaggerated. Some poor schlub has had to get his calculator out to fart around with the figures to make them extra frightening.

Here's how the paper has played with each of the three figures it has already cherrypicked from the report to worry its readers:
    1. The EHRC figures don't include the total 'more than one million' number. The Mail has had to work it out itself from the percentage people in the UK who are foreign-born (10.8%) and then using the figure of 18% of foreign-born people in subsidised accommodation to work out what the total might be.
    2. The figures don't say that one in nine homes is subsidised by a migrant family. They say that one in ten are, with '90 per cent of those in social housing are UK born,' so the paper has bizarrely bumped the figures up.
    3. The figures do include the figure for the housing queues lengthening by more than half, but measures from 1996 - not the Mail's hot button 1997 marker which it uses because that's the year Labour came to power. The actual numbers are presented within this bit of context:
    [the rise in the waiting list for subsidised accommodation] followed substantial previous reductions caused principally by existing tenants exercising their right to buy. Councils highlight high housing costs as a key driver in increasing demand in the social housing sector.
    Of course, the paper removes this to make it look as though it's immigration that led to the housing queues lengthening.

The article is topped off by a great cherrypicked section of a quote from Trevor Phillips that removes another bit of context. The full quote is this:
I welcome these findings as they are an indication the system is, broadly speaking, working fairly for all groups. What’s clear is that there is a gap between supply and demand of social housing of which the presence of immigrants is a relatively small element, but often a highly visible one. With increased pressure on social housing in the future there will be a need to resource the system appropriately and manage it fairly in years ahead. [The bold section is what the Mail leaves out]
Of course, the Mail's version removes the references to the system working fairly and to the presence of immigrants being a 'relatively small element' of the gap between supply and demand to make it look more as though the report says that the 'soaring' number of immigrants in social housing is creating great strain on public housing, when it is saying quite the opposite.

That's it. For now. The article was published today - the same day as the press release on the EHRC website. By tomorrow, ther may be a different version on the site that also appears in the dead tree version (under James Slack's byline, maybe) that further distorts things and beefs up the scaremongering. Don't be surprised if there is.


septicisle said...

Top stuff as always.

jungle said...

Top post, but the misrepresentation is actually even worse than that.

The Daily Mail is using (as always) a picture of a Muslim to illustrate this story. The intended message is obvious. Nasty Muslims are taking all your houses.

As someone who works in housing research, I know damn well that near on ZERO of the Muslim (or indeed Asian) minorities outside of East London Bangladeshis live in council housing. If you draw maps from the 2001 census, the places with council housing and the places with Pakistanis are mutually exclusive. They are virtually NEVER in the same place.

If there's a council housing shortage, it sure as hell isn't down to the Islamic horde, but down to the fact that hardly any such housing has been built for years/decades.

The reasons for Asians not using council housing are unproven. Some say it's cultural. But having visited Bradford a few times, my instinct suggests that there might be a few 'no-go areas' for Muslims around there.

Sao Paulo said...

If you don't like the DM or DE you simple shouldn't read them you frak ups. Lets take the Guardian apart from you lot hardly anyone bothers hense £15 million in debt.

Please grow up and live your own lifes instead of trying to tell others what do you, you freaks of nature