Welsh Language Board blames the messenger

The Welsh Language Board has completed its investigation into a complaint made by a Straight Statistics reader and reported here.

The complaint related to a press release issued to the media and later posted in Welsh on WLB’s website. It reported a survey that claimed to show that English-speaking parents encountered no particular difficulty if they sent their children to Welsh-medium schools. The survey failed to substantiate the claim, which ran contrary to a lot of previous research – see earlier post for details.

In his response to the complaint, Dr Jeremy Evas, Director of Policy and Terminology at the WLB, acknowledges that the press release has caused the board “anxiety and embarrassment”. But he denies the charge that the WLB knowingly lied.

His defence is that the press release, complete with approving comments by the board’s chair, Meri Huws, was given to the press by a PR company without the board’s authorisation or clearance. It further transpires that Ms Huws’ comments had neither been seen nor approved by her – “such prior drafting is common practice in the Public Service” he says. So MGB PR had gained approval for a survey, carried it out, written a press release, invented a quote or two from Ms Huws saying how encouraging the results were, and issued it.

The press release was subsequently translated into Welsh by officials who were in ignorance of its unauthorised status, and posted on the WLB website. It wasn’t taken down until my correspondent complained, and no retraction has been posted nor, so far as I know, issued to the media who originally reported the survey. So in spite of the WLB’s regret, its efforts to put the misinformation right have scarcely been energetic.

Dr Evas is critical of the headline I put on the previous post: “Welsh Language Board disowns a survey its chair extols”. While an eye-catching headline, he says, it is hardly a straight statement in itself. On the contrary, on the knowledge available at the time, it was entirely straight. It did not occur to me that a PR company contracted to the WLB would release quotes attributed to its chair without even passing them in front of her.

As for the survey itself, Dr Evas says that it was “a PR survey” that nobody had ever claimed was technically robust. As it was not needed for policy decisions, non-specialist board officials accepted MGB’s offer to carry it out “in good faith, with no desire to distort any facts”.

With the benefit of hindsight, he admits, this was regrettable. The survey was neither approved by the board’s survey control procedures nor authorised by the board’s statistician, who expressed concerns over its robustness. (He does not say when this concern was expressed – after the event, or before?)

If we accept Dr Evas’ reassurances, and I’ve no reason not to, the whole business was a huge public relations blunder. But given the WLB’s earlier flirtation with dodgy surveys, it’s one it ought to have avoided. We’re not talking here of a private company whipping up some spurious PR puff, but of a public body in receipt of public funds and the obligations that imposes.

The upside is that Dr Evas says the WLB is eager to learn from what happened  and will be meeting the UK Statistics Authority and the Welsh Government in order to discuss the possibility that the new office of the Welsh Language Commissioner, due to take over some functions from the WLB in April 2012, can  be brought under the Code of Practice for Official Statistics. That sounds sensible to me.