The sway, half-truths, and the rife

Awarding A-level school-leaving qualifications (or not) has been a hot topic of late, prompting memories of a favourite exam expression: ‘compare and contrast’. How would pupils react if asked to apply that to two newspaper reports?

The first reads:

“UK inflation has soared by two-thirds in only one month, as profiteers ramp up prices and a spendthrift Tory government fuels Covid-19’s economic devastation.”

The other:

“Inspired economic stimulus by the Tory government has cushioned the UK from the pandemic, while holding inflation to a monthly shift of only 0.4 percentage points.”

Comparing the two, there are clear similarities in referring to the UK government’s response to the pandemic, the economic benefits or otherwise, and the impact on inflation. Yet the contrasts are very stark, especially the disparity between the figures given – one claiming a two-thirds increase in inflation; the other less than half a percent. 

The apparent contradictions continue. The next sentence in the first report reads: “The runaway inflation rate now threatens to breach the Bank of England’s target, needing further growth of little more than 10 basis points, as the tiny fractions of one-tenth of a percent are known in the world of finance.”

The contrast with the second report is equally stark: “The government can take particular satisfaction from its control of the inflation rate, which has headroom to double yet still meet the Bank of England’s independently-set target.”

Surely they can’t both be true – about to over-shoot the target but still room to double? Or is this an example of Winston Churchill’s oft-quoted remark about “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Or is it a case of lies, damned lies, and Boris Johnson bus lies? And in the interests of balance, lies, damned lies, and Tony Blair mass destruction lies? 

No, the answer lies in none of these. All the statistics and figures quoted are authentic and from an indisputable source. How then can they be reconciled? As always, politicians, their statements, and their fanzine newspapers can be economical with the truth.

In June, the UK inflation rate grew from 0.6 percent to 1.0 percent – up by exactly two-thirds, or a rise of only 0.4 percentage points, depending on how you want to portray it. And the Bank of England’s inflation target is 2.0 percent – leaving room for the June rate to double and still pass the test, or increase by just over 10 basis points (1.01 percent will do) to be breached. 

You don’t need an A* student pass to conclude this is an exercise in what has been long known as ‘spin’ – presenting facts and figures in a way that supports whatever case you’re making. And with all sides equally enthusiastic to use the data to best advantage, who can be blamed for calling one or the other ‘fake news’? 

The race is to get your story in first. Even if there is not much overlap between readers of the Sun and the Telegraph, say, or the Daily Mail and the Guardian, they will remember what they read – and subsequent rebuttals (from either side) will be forgotten, or dismissed as opposition propaganda, if even seen. 

The thinking reader should always remain sceptical and try to fact-check by getting at the source of the data – in this case the Office of National Statistics – easily verified by a quick consultation with Mr Google. As we used to say in my distant UK newspaper youth, “What do you expect for threepence, the truth??”