Spin trumps statistics in Whitehall, says Sir Michael

Promises by the Conservatives that they would “take the moral high ground” on statistics have not been redeemed, Sir Michael Scholar says.

In a recent lecture at St John’s College Cambridge, he said that the Coalition Government has been “lukewarm” in its support for the objectives of the UK Statistics Authority, which he chairs. When he wrote to David Cameron before the election outlining UKSA’s objectives – which included the curtailment of the pre-release access period for official statistics – he received a positive reply. In contrast, neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrat party leaders responded at all.

But since the election and the formation of the Coalition, Sir Michael’s requests have been rejected, he said. In addition to pre-release access, they involved strengthening the influence of the National Statistician in decisions about  output and staffing, and consulting UKSA before cuts were made to departmental statistical work.

In his speech Sir Michael focussed on pre-release access (24 hours in England) which he said was “wholly inconsistent with UN and EU codes of practice and also with best international practice”. He said: “It encourages the public to think – as they seem to think – that Ministers and their advisers routinely interfere with statistical publications before their release.”

He added that after the accidental release of market-sensitive statistics to 400 unauthorised people by the Treasury, he had written to George Osborne, the Chancellor, saying that this wouldn’t have happened if the Conservatives had stuck to their pre-election stance of opposition to pre-release access. Mr Osborne had rejected the plea, saying that the public expect Ministers to be briefed about their statistics when they are published, and 24 hours is needed.

“I do not find this convincing” Sir Michael said. “This is an expectation that could easily be changed. It had been changed in the US and a number of other countries. I accept however that abolishing pre-release access would be inconvenient for our spin doctors who have grown hugely in numbers in recent decades and who, I was reliably told, briefed Ministers on this matter when they discussed my request last summer.”

Earlier in his lecture Sir Michael had said that the cosy relationship between media and Ministers was “a deep flaw in democratic government”. It arose from an alliance between Ministers who want to get re-elected and those in the press who wish to make money and themselves exercise power. “This alliance is, I believe, the greatest source of corruption in modern times. It dwarfs the petty corruption revealed in the Parliamentary expenses scandal. It is the genus of which the Murdoch affair is a species.”

Ministers are entitled to make the best case they can for their policies, in the face of a hypercritical stream of comment. “It is entirely right that they should do so.  But it is not right that they make deals with individual journalists or editors or proprietors – to provide, say, news now in exchange for later favours, for sympathetic treatment at some later date.

“Nor is it right if they cross the line from persuasive presentation of their policies and actions to the manipulation of information, or to interference with the publication of Departmental information and statistics.

“In Whitehall these developments have led to a hyper-sensitivity to the media and to outside commentary and criticism, and to the huge growth in influence first, in the 1980s, of Departmental Press Offices, then of Special Advisers; then to the growing influence of a new kind of Departmental Minister whose consuming interest is in what the next day’s Press will say – or, if he has a longer time-horizon, what the weekend’s Press will say.

“A growth in such influences means, necessarily, a reduction in other influences.  In Whitehall it has meant a diminishing interest in analysis and enquiry, and, in the field of government information, a growing interest in the persuasive Press release, with its careful selection of facts and numbers, designed to communicate as effectively as possible some pre-determined message.”