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Dear Readers’ Editor: About Polly Toynbee…

Dear Readers’ Editor,

A couple of factual errors seem to have slipped into Polly Toynbee’s article yesterday. She writes of:

The reality of welfare cuts the Institute for Fiscal Studies calls “without historical and international precedent”

However, when The Guardian previously reported that quote  from the IFS it was different into two key respects. First, it was “almost without”, not “without”. A small but significant change, as “almost without” of course means ‘there have been some precedents’, whilst “without” on its own means ‘there have been none’.

What’s more, that previous report cited the quote as being about the government’s overall spending plans and not specifically welfare cuts.

I realise that neither of these corrections is likely to change people’s views on her overall point one way or the other. But as a basic point of journalistic accuracy, shouldn’t things like this be corrected? After all, how does it serve the readers to drop the word “almost” without telling them?

(By the way, I know you’ve not responded when I’ve pointed out other misleading comments in her pieces in the past – see here, which I also emailed to yourself – so if there’s a general rule that misquotations and misquoting of statistics is fine in comment pieces, perhaps you could let me know for future reference?)

Thank you.

Yours etc.

UPDATE: Kudos to the Readers’ Editor; story now being corrected.

4 responses to “Dear Readers’ Editor: About Polly Toynbee…”

  1. Poly Toynbee – never let facts get in the way of prejudice. The woman who told us to hold our nose and vote for war criminal Blair.

  2. Mark can I ask why this particular welfare related inaccuracy? – The chancellor in the CSR speech and DWP lie about the level of benefit fraud (adding Govt error to fraud and calling it all fraud – quietly corrected 3 months later only by DWP after 9 national church denominations demanded it), DWP repeatedly mixing the words unemployed and workless (to boost numbers and exaggerate the cost of "dependency culture" estimates by including the sick in disabled and implying they are unemployed by choice or laziness). The number of newspaper stories that misrepresent and straight forwardly lie about people on welfare (Times story declaring 80% of IB claimants to be fraudulent, a blatant lie which they were fed by a DWP press officer derived from from ESA reclassification stands out) – but I could find one published every week of the last 2 years if I tried..

    Yet the story on welfare you choose to challenge is one which omits the word "almost" in a way which strengthens the argument that welfare claimants are having a hard time. You are right it shouldn't happen – but that that is the journalistic inaccuracy around welfare you are impassioned enough to want to correct suggests you have been hanging around with Tories to long!

    For the record the number of people coming to the advice centre I help at is unprecedented. The levels of unemployment is not unprecedented but the number unable to pay their rent is precedented – the number we are passing onto food banks and charitable help unprecedented, the number with mistakes due to mishandling of benefit claims or unfounded and arbitrary sanctions is unprecedented. The major cause is coalition welfare policy, but you got a little kick into Polly….. injustice addressed?

    • Paul: Simple answer to 'why this' is 'because it's the one I read' 🙂 You're right that it's by no means the only sort of mistake like this made, and they're made by people across the political spectrum.

      On benefit fraud in particular, what I've blogged about before is how misleading it is to give more attention to fraud than to administrative errors given their relative size. DWP press releases mention fraud far more than tackling administrative errors, for example – which is something I've blogged criticising them for.

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