Hard News by Russell Brown


Garbage in, garbage out

Dr Jarrod Gilbert has a pretty blunt response today to the revelation that the government's pre-election crackdown on gangs was predicated on data so wildly wrong that it's hard to imagine how it happened.

David Fisher lays out the scale of the mistake in the Herald today:

The inaccurate figures had suggested the 4000 gang members in New Zealand were personally responsible for about 1500 serious violence and drug charges. New figures show this year gang members were actually responsible for 26 of the 649 serious drug charges laid. They were also responsible for 61 of 868 violence charges.

The difference between the sets of figures is the inaccurate figures which resulted in police excluding potentially 56,000 other people who might have been responsible for the crimes by attributing the actions solely to gang members. Police had failed to mention a wide group of gang prospects, general associates and family of gang members.

Gilbert has a right to be indigant, because he recognised at the time that the numbers could not be accurate, and wound up having a confrontation with Kiwiblog's David Farrar, who publicly defended them. He points out that the numbers, which formed the basis of the policy, have never been publicly corrected.

He also notes Keith Ng's post-election lament that journalists had not done enough to follow up stories raised by, in particular, Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics:

Last week Gordon Campbell articulated a rebuke to Ng, in part saying that if politicians just refuse to talk then there’s not a lot journalists can do. End of story.

David Fisher's work is proof this is not the case. He chipped away until the truth was revealed. It’s his second story on this issue. He first reported the erroneous data and uncovered collusion between the Minister’s office and Right Wing blogger David Farrar, who was then seeking to defend the inflated data. Now Fisher has gained Cabinet papers showing that the numbers have been retracted. All of which was revealed through Official Information Act Requests undertaken by him or by Josh Grainger, a University of Canterbury law student. Credit to the police, too, for providing the accurate data.

To me it is surprising that more journalists haven’t dug around like this in relation to the issues raised in Dirty Politics, after all there are names to be made. 

What I'm thinking is this: how often does this happen? How often is policy formulated and sold on bogus numbers, which are simply accepted? I had a modest experience with this after the then-Broadcasting minister Joanthan Coleman quoted nonsensical ratings figures to justify the government's decision to to shut down TVNZ 7.

My Media7 colleague Sam Mulgrew and I did get to the bottom of that one. It turned out that officials in Coleman's office, presumably looking for persuasively gloomy numbers, simply didn't understand the ratings figures they were trying to quote. Ironically, we had a hell of a job trying to get the Herald to stop using the bogus figures the minister's office had handed out. They were even quoted twice in editorials.

I'm sure the shiny, data-savvy New Zealand Herald of 2014 wouldn't have been as sweetly trusting of the minister. And I'd wager that there might well be a few more stories to be found in interrogating the data that governments and ministers offer to justify their actions.

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