While the public image of data journalism tends to revolve around big data dumps and headline-grabbing leaks, there is a more important day-to-day application of data skills: scrutinising the claims regularly made in support of spending public money.
I’m blogging about this now because I recently came across a particularly good illustration of politicians being dazzled by numbers from lobbyists (that journalists should be checking) in this article by Simon Jenkins, from which I’ll quote at length:
“This government, so draconian towards spending in public, is proving as casual towards dodgy money in private as were Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Earlier this month the Olympics boss, Lord Coe, moseyed into Downing Street and said that his opening and closing ceremonies were looking a bit mean at £40m. Could he double it to £81m for more tinsel? Rather than scream and kick him downstairs, David Cameron said: my dear chap, but of course. I wonder what the prime minister would have said if his lordship had been asking for a care home, a library or a clinic.
“Much of the trouble comes down to the inexperience of ingenue ministers, and their susceptibility to the pestilence of lobbying now infecting Westminster. On this occasion the hapless Olympics minister, Hugh Robertson, claimed that the extra £41m was “worth £2-5bn in advertising revenue alone”, a rate of return so fanciful as to suggest a lobbyist’s lunch beyond all imagining. Robertson also claimed to need another £271m for games security (not to mention 10,000 troops, warships and surface-to-air missiles), despite it being “not in response to any specific security threat”. It was just money.
“This was merely the climax of naivety. In their first month in office, ministers were told – and believed – that it would be “more expensive” to cancel two new aircraft carriers than to build them. Ministers were told it would cost £2bn to cancel Labour’s crazy NHS computer rather than dump it in the nearest skip. Chris Huhne, darling of the renewables industry, wants to give it £8bn a year to rescue the planet, one of the quickest ways of transferring money from poor consumer to rich landowner yet found. The chancellor, George Osborne, was told by lobbyists he could save £3bn a year by giving away commercial planning permissions. All this was statistical rubbish.
“If local government behaved as credulously as Whitehall it would be summoned before the audit commission and subject to surcharge.”
And if you want to keep an eye on such claims, try a Google News search like this one.