Lies, damned lies, statistics —  and The Guardian

If you’d like a masterclass in myopic journalism, you’ve come to the right place.

Photo courtesy of Jimmy McIntyre via Flickr

In case you’re not familiar with it, Betteridge’s Law states:

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.

In the absence of evidence, a headline posed as a question allows the journalist to dress up their beliefs as factually objective news, without having to substantiate the claims made. It’s a lazy journalistic device employed to promote agendas and startle eyeballs with inflammatory notions.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian:

Journalist Andy Beckett excels in painting the bleakest possible view of the North East; a distant plateau of rust and misery, desperate and stagnating, a region without jobs, hope or prospect.

Unsurprisingly, the article has many in the region baying for Beckett’s blood; not that there aren’t issues and challenges to overcome, because there are plenty. The North East has been put through the industrial, economic and political wringer over the past 50 years.

The issue is that Beckett’s reporting heavily relies on the omission, suppression and distortion of facts and opinion. You’ll notice Beckett’s feature is a news story, not an opinion piece. As such, it’s not unreasonable to expect a degree of balanced journalism. Beckett has produced nothing of a sort, and instead attempts to construct a destructive narrative through a shambles of subjective and misleading statements.

Here are several reasons why the Guardian story is a country mile from representing the lives, loves and economic reality of North East England. I’ve no doubt there are plenty more:

Beckett’s opening gambit is fiction

In his opening paragraphs, Beckett paints the North East as an unreachable wasteland, set adrift from the rest of civilisation:

When Blair arrived early or his train arrived late, it was felt by Whitehall that the increasingly controversial premier could not just stand on a platform, waiting. Hence the secret room. Now… isolated passenger footsteps echo in the long middle-of-the-day lull and trains for Scotland and the south of England rattle through without stopping.

Beckett is keen that readers understand the shift of political power from the region is directly responsible for real and tangible demise; for example, the decline of train services through, to, and from the North East is one of many symptoms.

Except this is entirely untrue. On weekdays, there are 25 trains from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh Waverley. From Darlington to King’s Cross? 37. Overall, East Coast now operates 50% more services than it did in the mid-1990s.

Before he’s barely started, Beckett quickly strays from the path of journalism and into romanticised fiction.

Cherry-picking the statistics

Having established the region’s transport infrastructure has collapsed, Beckett gets to grips with the facts and figures that support his view of the North East:

Throughout 2013, as joblessness receded in most of the UK, in the north-east it carried on rising. This year, it has begun to fall a little but remains the worst in the nation.

So we’re clear: unemployment in the North East is a serious and troubling issue, but the situation is improving. That, or the North East is currently enjoying record employment figures.

Since 2007, the area’s contribution to national economic growth, measured as gross value added, has shrunk from an already weak 3% in the Blair years to barely 2%.

According to the numbers (which only measure up to 2011), the region’s growth shrank from 2.9% to 2.1% — around 28%. It’s true, that’s not good news and nobody would suggest otherwise. However, the same figures show bigger problems for the East of England (38% reduction in GVA growth), the East Midlands (34%), the West Midlands (30%) and so on. A little context shows the conditions faced by the North East are far from unique.

Update — Buzzfeed’s Chris Stokel provides up-to-date figures concerning GVA in his takedown of the Guardian’s article; the figure in 2012 was in fact 3%, down from 3.2% of UK GVA in 1997.

Source: Buzzfeed

Is there any evidence that the situation has changed since 2011? Well, yes. For example, PWC believes the economic recovery is broadening and that “manufacturing and speciality engineering are undoubtedly enjoying a resurgence in Yorkshire and the North East,” a view somewhat at odds with Beckett’s view of an urban sprawl of rust and ruin.

…public sector employment in the region — the highest in England at more than one job in five — has been falling since 2009, a year before the coalition took office.

There’s no mention that Lloyd’s Bank reported earlier this year that private sector activity was at a 49-month high in the North East.

Misquoting Lord Howell

To emphasise that the North East is wracked by industrial decay, Beckett quotes the Conservative Peer Lord Howell:

…last year the Tory peer Lord Howell suggested the region had “large uninhabited and desolate areas… where there’s plenty of room for fracking”.

As a region, the North East stretches from the borders of the Scottish Highlands to the Cleveland Hills, from the coast in the East to the Pennines in the West. There are only 2.6 million people in a region of over 3,000 square miles.

So yes, there are “large uninhabited and desolate areas” — Howell was referring to the rural nature of the North East (actually he was referring to the North West, but confused the two), not casting aspersions about the decaying economies of towns and cities. It’s Beckett using Howell’s words out of context to damn the region.

Old news is bad news

In the head of Beckett, the global economic crisis is still happening:

“The Northern Rock building society, with roots in the region going back a century and a half, has suffered a humiliating meltdown.”

“Has suffered?” Northern Rock doesn’t exist anymore; it became financially unstuck in 2007. Why refer to it in the present sense? Dressing up a seven year-old story as current affairs is desperate.

Britain’s “rust belt” isn’t in the North East

Beckett quotes from a report in the Economist into areas of the country it considers a “rust belt”, possibly the inspiration for Beckett’s dangerously misguided comparison. The feature focuses almost exclusively on Hartlepool, Hull and Wolverhampton. That’s not a belt; that’s an ill-fitting Christmas jumper that covers half the country. In no way whatsoever does the article refer to a “rust belt” that encapsulates the North East.

HS2 is not a statement on the North East economy

Is the HS2 rail project proof of the North East’s economic demise? No. Beckett has a crack anyway:

“…sometimes the north-east [seems] more like an island than a region.” It is an island that the HS2 rail project is not currently intended to reach.

HS2 is a rail project based on the speed, access and capacity of current services to London, issues that destinations served by the East Coast mainline don’t necessarily face. As previously noted, there are plenty of train services and therefore arguably plenty of capacity for a relatively small population, as well as daily services direct from Newcastle to London that take barely two and a half hours.

Misrepresenting the views of local government

Interviewees can confirm or challenge the viewpoint of a journalist, or indeed, both. Given the choice, Beckett deliberately chose to publish the negative views of those he interviewed and suppressed anything that didn’t fit his narrative.

Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle Central is quoted several times in the piece and it’s clear she has concerns — but according to Onwurah those concerns are hardly representative of her interview with Beckett:

Source: Twitter

Onwurah also told The Journal:

“I was interviewed by the Guardian back in November on the region’s economic and social challenges and also the region’s strengths and basis for the region’s success in the future.
“As you can imagine I talked at length about the last two. In the intervening months somebody somewhere clearly decided only to cover the first topic creating a patronising and inaccurate reflection on the region.”

Newcastle’s nightlife is alive and well

Given that Newcastle is the economic heart of the North East, Beckett spends plenty of time ignoring it. When he does focus on the city, he gets it dead wrong:

The quaysides are slightly less uplifting now. On the Newcastle side, several bars have shut down. Bridge Court, an enormous, empty office block, has a plaque that reads, “The foundation stone was laid by Mr Eddie George, governor of the Bank of England, on 22 September 1994"; another sign says, “Demolition. Keep Out”.

Few people will recognise the city Beckett is referring to. It’s true that a handful of bars on the Quayside closed in the mid-to-late 2000s. Since then, however, the hardcore nightlife scene hasn’t collapsed but moved elsewhere in the city. Collingwood Street, the Gate and High Bridge are all thriving. And the Quayside is far from dead; new restaurants, new cocktail bars, new craft ale venues.

The demolition sign Beckett refers to? There’s no demolition work on the Quayside I can think of; perhaps the sign was attached to the scaffolding of the building being renovated into a new hotel? Regardless, how is a single demolition site representative of a city’s decline, while any number of new openings in the past 12 months are blatently ignored?

Only the worst photographs will do

The subjective use of images to illustrate a news story will lead the reader where journalists wish to take them. The Guardian takes the opportunity to choose the grubbiest images its photo editor can lay their hands on.

Here’s one of the photos used to illustrate Beckett’s story; black and white (gritty, like the North, innit), and also 27 years old. So old, in fact, the woman in it is dead:

Source: The Guardian

Here’s another:

Source: The Guardian

Graffiti on a sign. Proof indeed of a region’s economic downfall. Case closed, your honour.

Great universities are a bad thing, apparently

I always thought the North East prospered as a result of further education, but Beckett manages to find somebody who disagrees, so it’s only right to report their view as the only informed opinion on the matter. Over to Andy Pike, director of Newcastle University’s Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies:

Further education is one of the north-east’s few growth industries. “Without it, I dread to think what some of the cities would be doing,”

And if my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a wagon.

Universities are well established in our society and economy. No need to speculate what we’d do without them, because they’re not going anywhere. And they’re only “one of the few growth industries” if you ignore offshore, digital, automotive, speciality engineering and all those other sectors Beckett failed to research.

But, Pike adds, “We have a problem with graduate retention: not as many stay as could do.”

First, of course more graduates could stay. If 100% of graduates don’t stay, then it’s a scientific fact more could stay. It’s a statement of fact applicable to every university in the world.

Second, according to NGI, the North East’s five universities boasts the highest graduate retention rate outside London (46%).

We love art, actually

Says Beckett of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art:

On Thursday evenings, it opens late, but on the Thursday I visited I saw four other visitors in half an hour.

Based on a single thirty minute visit to a gallery late on a weekday evening, Beckett is suggesting the North East is somehow disconnected from culture. That’s not journalism. That’s fantastical extrapolation.

If you want to form views based on individual facts, he’s a more objective one worth noting: when the Turner Prize was held in Gateshead in 2011, the audiences were almost double the average crowds of events in London.

Twisting words to make nonexistent points

Beckett uses a change in role by Edward Twiddy, head of the North-East Local Enterprise Partnership (Nelep), to damn the region in a manner that makes no sense whatsoever:

But even Twiddy is off: he is set to leave Nelep for Atom, a new digital bank to be based “in the north-east”.

“But even Twiddy is off” to set up a new business… in the same place he’s already in business. So the North East is a good place to do business, yes?

Update — Ed Twiddy has since published an open letter to the Guardian, stating his views were also misrepresented by Beckett.

Increasing employment is also bad

It’s baffling that in a news story arguing that regeneration has been unsuccessful, the sub-sea and offshore industry is considered fair game:

How many jobs were there in the days of the shipyards? “Six and a half thousand,” Freddy says. “I was an apprentice in the shipyard here. You’re never going to get back to those numbers.”
Bruce offers a tour of the quay in his spotless Range Rover. As we drive, he points out other cars parked nose to tail at the roadside: “There’s never enough parking. The number of people working here keeps growing.”

It’s true the North East is unlikely to have the same number of shipbuilding jobs as it used to have, and that’s because it no longer builds ships. As for parking problems caused by an increasing rate of employment in the offshore sector —what, that’s a bad thing?

In fact throughout the last paragraphs, Beckett continually refers to highlights of the region which are then declared null and void by individual points-of-view. You have to wonder whether, along with Chi Onwurah and Ed Twiddy, everyone interviewed feels their views were misrepresented by Beckett.

Where’s Nissan?

Beckett’s final paragraph, upon visiting the National Renewable Energy Centre:

Working here looks much better than working in a chilly shipyard, a call centre or a nightclub, or for most of the region’s previous economic saviours. But Mill says the centre has a staff of 69. The north-east will need an awful lot more workplaces like it this if it is going to stop teetering.

What’s that? The North East needs more examples of enterprise that offer prospects, opportunity and success? Then it’s baffling Beckett doesn’t mention the region’s flourishing IT and digital sector, or know that the FTSE100's only software company, Sage, was founded and is still based in the region.

And where is Nissan? You know, the global automotive plant that employs 6,000 in Sunderland, and is on course to employ thousands more? We know Beckett deliberately excluded them from his piece, since Edward Twiddy confirms he was taken to Nissan on his tour of the North East.

Durham? Hello?

Durham — a cathedral city, a significant tourist destination and home of one of the top five universities in the country. In over 3,500 words, Beckett doesn’t mention Durham once. Beckett falls over himself to drill down into every inky crack of misery and despair, but fails to mention Durham.

In the past, I’ve been an investigative writer. When commissioned to write investigative journalism, it’s often the case that as you research your topic, the facts you unearth clash with your original hypotheses. If you want to report the story as envisioned, your only option is to be selective about the facts and points-of-view you highlight to support your notion, while choosing to suppress others.

There is no doubt whatsoever that Beckett has misrepresented views and distorted facts, and the result is that plenty of people ignorant to the region now think poorer of it. So crass and smug is the execution, I can only assume that this was Beckett’s and his editor’s intention. Why? I’ve no idea.

People are tired of shouting about how unfairly the North East is promoted — not because they wish to conceal the issues faced here, but because others choose to deliberately reinforce stereotypes and preconceptions.

Any journalist can weave together a series of statistics and soundbites to validate their point of view, but that’s not journalism. That’s storytelling. The Guardian has done an injustice to not only the region, my home, but to itself.