The Times

March 31, 2002

Gillian Bowditch: Lies, damned lies and the Scottish executive’s statistics

Gillian Bowditch
The Sunday Times

Numbers have never been the Scottish executive’s strong point (no doubt one day we will discover what is). From Donald Dewar’s blasé assertion that the parliament building could be erected for £40m, to Henry McLeish’s confident boast that free care for the elderly could be met in perpetuity from the public purse, it has long been clear that the administration’s calculations were a couple of beads short of an abacus.

Now it transpires that it is not just remedial economics classes that the hounds on the Mound need, but some tuition in rudimentary arithmetic.

Last week, the Advertising Standards Authority ordered the Scottish executive to withdraw advertisements tackling domestic violence, on the grounds that the figures they contained were misleading.

The Behind Closed Doors campaign stated that one in five women in Scotland lived “with the constant threat of domestic abuse”. The statistic was extrapolated from the Scottish Crime Survey 2000 in which 19% of the 1,500 women who responded said that at some point in their lives they had been victims of threats or force from a partner.

Only 6% of the women had experienced either violence or the threat of violence in the previous year. When violence alone was taken as an indicator, the figure was 4%.

The adverts should have said that one in 25 women lived with abuse, although even that figure might be overstating the case. The victims who live with the constant threat of violence are, mercifully, likely to be a significantly smaller number.

This is not to belittle domestic violence. It is a serious and wholly unacceptable problem. Women (or men) who are affected by it clearly need help and support. It will no doubt be argued by some that by overstating the case, the government was at least highlighting an issue that affects thousands of Scottish women each year.

But this is not just another case of an innumerate executive. The warping of government statistics for propaganda purposes should concern anybody with an interest in safeguarding democracy. It reaches to the heart of government: the basic issue is one of trust.

This government has spent more on advertising and hired more propaganda merchants than any other previous British administration. Special advisers, after all, are only proselytisers for the opinions of their political masters.

That they are prepared to exploit any hint of gullibility on the part of the electorate was amply demonstrated by the debacle over the transport department adviser Jo Moore and McLeish’s amnesia on the matter of his office expenses.

The issue of trust is nothing new, of course. In 1712, the Scottish physician and pamphleteer John Arbuthnot wrote The Art of Political Lying. John Major’s government was mired in sleaze. The difference is that when the corruption of ministers such as Jonathan Aitken was exposed, voters were genuinely shocked.

Now when politicians let us down we are not surprised. We elect them in the belief that they are honest. We institute laws, codes of practice, registers of interests and parliamentary watchdogs in an effort to curtail the bad behaviour but when their chicanery is exposed, we are no longer amazed.

It is a malaise that started at Westminster but has quickly spread north.

Few Scots were astounded by Jack McConnell’s confession of adultery or by McLeish’s financial “muddle”. Peddling lies is such a core function of government these days — Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s former spin doctor, euphemistically described it to me recently as “degrees of denial” — that many politicians tell the truth only when it suits them.

Misrepresenting the level of domestic violence in Scotland may in the scheme of things be a small, white lie, but it is a falsehood nonetheless.

There has been no apology from the executive for the way it has misled the public on this issue, largely because politicians, quite rightly, concluded that the public no longer expects them to tell the truth.

Manipulating public perception is now such an important part of government that the Scottish executive is ploughing nearly £5m into health advertising campaigns this year to influence our behaviour — double the spending per capita in England. The government’s total advertising budget now stands at more than £190m.

There is, however, not a shred of evidence that the patronising advertisements telling us to eat more greens, play with our children more, or drink less, are having any effect on our lifestyles.

The most recent anti-smoking campaign has been followed by advertisements telling us to stub our cigarettes out properly. But the domestic violence advertisements betray more than just a waste of public money or the routine dishonesty at the heart of government. They show how easy it is for determined pressure groups to infiltrate the administration and influence our politicians.

The ban on fox hunting demonstrated how willing the government was to implement the aims of the anti-blood sports lobby. The radical feminist agenda promoted by some involved with the women’s refuge movement found willing collaborators among many of Scottish Labour’s female MSPs.

In the face of such a powerful politically correct message and with the support of politicians such as Margaret Curran and Jackie Baillie, few were prepared to question the objectivity of a campaign in which the boundaries between promoting women and castigating men were confused.

No matter how laudable the aims of pressure groups, our elected representatives should tread cautiously before jumping on their bandwagons.

Ignoring the issue of violence against women may well be a greater crime than overstating it. But the consequences of this kind of exaggeration are not trivial. If one in five women lives with the constant threat of domestic abuse, it follows that one in five men is a perpetual abuser. It is a subtle way of demonising men and boys.

The Zero Tolerance trust has used these kinds of figures to justify taking its campaign into the classroom.

Then there is the fact that government policy and funding are both based on these statistics. The executive spent £800,000 on the adverts. It has earmarked £18m over three years to fight domestic violence. Do the real figures merit that kind of spending?

If these statistics are wrong, what about other equally dubious figures released by the executive. Can we, for example, trust its recent assertion that assaults against teachers are up 50% in a year?

Churning out false and unbelievable statistics undermines the aim of the campaign. The suggestion that one in five women lives in constant fear of abuse is as obvious a lie as one in 10 is gay or all men are rapists. It does a disservice to the genuine victims of domestic violence.

The government’s campaign has successfully highlighted the issue of abuse — unfortunately it is abuse of its own power.

Copyright 2002, Times Newspapers Ltd.