“Who do you believe?”, asks Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, echoing the question asked by a Mori Report to be published tomorrow. Hoping that we’ll believe her, she claims that,
[People] believe what they read more than what they see. . . . Only 3% of reported crime involves sex and violence, yet it accounts for 45% of crime in the press, so how can mere statistics win?(Polly Toynbee, “It is New Labour, as much as the public, that lacks trust”, The Guardian, 22nd November 2005.)
In view of the first point, that people “believe what they read more than what they see”, one may indeed see some truth in this, though it must be added that it is no less true of the journalists and the literary types of North London; and moreover that such types are often more prone than others to the debilitating luxury of not believing what they do not see in their leafy suburbs or what they do not read in their hopeful political periodicals.
As for the second point, that violent crime is over-reported in the press when compared with other crimes, little could be more fatuous; for if the press were to give a statistically fair representation of crime in England and Wales, we should cease to hear about bombs on trains since we should be swamped by reports of teenagers stealing sweets.
Dealing with the matter of public trust in politicians and journalists, Ms Toynbee castigates both for their abuses, and singles out the staff of the Daily Mail as exemplary in its misuse of statistics, calling it “not stupid . . . just wicked”. But what of Ms Toynbee’s claim that, “Only 3% of reported crime involves sex and violence, yet it accounts for 45% of crime in the press”? She gives no source for her statistics (this itself is a misuse), and so we are left wondering if she made them up.
According to the Home Office Statistical Bulletin of July 2005, “Violent crime represented 22 per cent of all BSC [British Crime Survey] and 21 per cent of police recorded crimes in 2004/05” (Sian Nicholas, David Povey, Alison Walker, and Chris Kershaw “Crime in England and Wales, 2004/2005”. p. 15.), of which 5 per cent is accounted for by sexual offences (p. 77). The sexual offence statistics are subsumed as a subset of the violent crime statistics.
Precisely what Ms Toynbee means by her statistical category of “sex and violence” is unclear, however. If she means sexual offences alone (that is, sexual offences as a subset of violent offences), then these account for just over 1 per cent of police recorded crimes. (She cannot have analysed the statistics of sexual crimes from the British Crime Survey, for they are excluded therefrom.) If she has made an error, however, and means “sex or violence”, that is to say, all violent crimes including sexual offences in the category of violence, then the figures are as above (22% or 21%).
Whence then has Ms Toynbee derived her figures? Are they from the soon-to-be published Mori Report? She does not say. Has she made them up or merely muddled them? What is certain is that with Polly Toynbee as the sole arbiter, mere statistics cannot win. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this state of affairs is owing to stupidity or wickedness.