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Chinese Whispers: The message might be clear at the start, but by the time YOU get to hear it, it has been hopelessly mangled [Art: Daina Mattis].

Chinese Whispers: The message might be clear at the start, but by the time YOU get to hear it, it has been hopelessly mangled [Art: Daina Mattis].

Remember the BBC’s hopeless mangling of the issues over the DWP’s incapacity benefit claimant death statistics on the radio show More or Less? Here’s a reminder if you’ve forgotten.

It turns out that the segment in question was created, not to examine the DWP’s vague, confusing and altogether opaque choices regarding what information to provide, but to respond to reports about the issue in other media, such as The Guardian.

Instead of proper reporting, we were given a game of Chinese whispers! The Guardian said this about the DWP figures but we’ve looked at them and they say that.” Of course, none of what either the newspaper or the radio show are saying matters one jot if the DWP’s figures haven’t properly answered the original Freedom of Information request – and they haven’t.

This Blog can report on the mess because Yr Obdt Srvt wrote a strongly-worded complaint, as promised at the end of the earlier article, and received a reply on September 14. It has taken until now for me to recover my temper enough to provide a rational commentary on what it said.

I had not realised that More or Less had chosen to avoid the substantive issue in order to belittle The Guardian. Did any of you, who listened to the programme, understand this to be the case? I had to find out in the response to my complaint by Wesley Stephenson who, in addition to being the so-called expert to whom presenter Tim Harford referred in the piece, is also a senior producer at BBC Radio’s Current Affairs department.

I had written: “While the point that we don’t know how these people died is correct – this is because the DWP deliberately fails to record causes of death, which is a contentious matter in its own right – this seems to be making a false claim about my Freedom of Information request. There was nothing in it to suggest that I thought the figure that the DWP provided would prove its responsibility for any deaths that took place. Why was Mr Harford suggesting that there was?”

In response, I got: “At no point did we mention you or make any suggestions about what you were trying to achieve with the FOI request. The piece was about the way the press and particularly The Guardian had reported it.”

Chinese whispers. The public wasn’t going to get the facts about the FoI – just some interpretations of what the DWP had chosen to provide, whether it related to the FoI or not.

Any reporter worth the name, investigating the veracity of such a report, would naturally look into the nature of those requests, in order to determine the value of the response from the DWP – and only then would they turn to the media reports in order to decide whether they were accurate or not.

What Mr Stephenson told me is that, rather than investigate the substantive issue, he had chosen to reinforce a distortion that supports the Conservative Government’s line. A reference in his email to the discredited Full Fact article on the subject, which was quoted by David Cameron in Parliament, supports this conclusion.

So the nit-picking subject of the More or Less piece, as with the Full Fact piece, is not the number of people who died at any time between December 2011 and May 2015 after being found “fit for work” by the DWP (as my FoI request demanded). Instead it is about whether they died within two weeks of being found fit for work – a question which is entirely immaterial to the issue at hand.

No doubt Messrs Stephenson and Harford, along with those responsible for the Full Fact farrago and anyone else who has chosen to misreport the issue, are lining up to receive honours for their services to the Conservative Party.

What a shame they ignored their duty to serve the public and betrayed us instead.

I’ll be publishing the full text of the More or Less email to me, along with my reply, so you can read the whole saga and see where they went wrong for yourselves.

ADDITIONAL: The editor of More or Less, Richard Vadon, has now written to defend his programme. You can read his email here – see if your conclusions match mine. I will also be publishing my reply.

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