Tag Archives: media

Chinese whispers

While reading my local paper online, I came across a contribution from the public that complained that Muslims in the UK are given latitude to act differently to the rest of the people, showing that Muslim lobby groups have the government in their pocket. Combined with the Islamophobia that is prevalent now, it feeds into the idea that a different group is somehow taking over. And as ever, the full story is ignored for the game of Chinese whispers that is our media machine.

The specific claim is that ‘Ed Balls has made it legal to smack children in muslim schools’, and this something that can’t be done elsewhere. As ever, the object of the attack is the Labour government, who are seen to be ‘bending over backwards’ to incorporate minority viewpoints (usually accompanied by the claim that they rely on minority votes).

Reading this, I thought ‘this seems unlikely to be true’. Making opt-outs from laws on ‘community’ grounds, whether religion/ethnicity or anything else is fraught with danger, and the government would avoid it at all costs. And, of course, it isn’t true. The truth behind this story is that staff in schools haven’t been allowed to use physical punishment children since 1999 (for England and Wales) and in state schools this happened earlier. However, parents aren’t banned from smacking their children (unless it is ‘cruel and degrading’), and thus anyone standing in for parents (in loco parentis) isn’t banned either. The only people banned are teachers in schools. And to define a school, the government chose to define them as establishments where kids go for 12.5 hours or more. Therefore, football or gymnastics coaches, sunday school teachers, music tutors, home schooling tutors, scout masters, parents’ friends and family, and anyone who is asked by a parent to look after children is allowed to smack. The BBC have posted a good history of the law, and point out that:

‘Some MPs have proposed a new clause for an education Bill currently before Parliament… meaning that only a person with actual parental responsibility for a child could continue to justify battery of that child as “reasonable chastisement”.’

So how did this claim about muslim schools come about? First Ann Cryer, MP asked a question in parliament about ‘teachers in madrassahs or in other religious schools’ (Hansard, BBC). Ed Balls pointed out that ‘there is not one rule for a child in a madrassah and another for a child in a school or in any other circumstance’ but didn’t promise to do something about part-time settings, presumably knowing that it would be a step towards a ban on smacking by parents too.

Next, and because of the simplification required for the headline and first two or three sentences in news pieces (see Wikipedia for a good explanation – I think this is a Nut Graph(!)) the story became:

‘Under existing law, teachers at state and private schools are banned from smacking children but their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Keighley News)

This claim is a lie, and is only explained properly at the middle of the piece.  But this sentence gets repeated:

‘A loophole in the law means that while teachers in state and private schools are banned from smacking children, their counterparts in faith schools are not.’ (Guardian)

This is so close that in an academic context could be considered plagiarism, unless citing the source. Again, explaining the actual law comes later.

But that dig at journalism is a digression. Now we have the idea that all faith schools are exempt (due to simplifying the story), and that it’s got something to do with Islam. Then politicians get back in on the act with the Lib Dem spokesman saying “The government needs to legislate to protect children – not leave an opt-out simply because it fears some ethnic or religious backlash.” (Guardian).

So instead of a bigger story about the fact that piano teachers are still allowed to rap children’s fingers with a ruler, Koran and Bible classes can enforce rote learning with similar methods, and parents, friends, family and babysitters are allowed to smack children in their care, we end up with the false claim that teachers in Muslim schools can smack and other teachers can’t. Is that right? No. Is it true. No again.


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Girls and crime: media and statistics again

All day I’ve heard and seen headlines stating ‘crimes by girls rise by a quarter’. And all day they’ve been wrong.

The BBC said ‘The number of crimes committed by girls in England and Wales has gone up by 25% in three years, according to figures’. What they should have said is the ‘number of offences committed and resulting in a disposal by young females rose by 25%’ (the Youth Justice Board’s report). That’s not the number of crimes committed, but those detected by police, with enough evidence and a known suspect, and so a official caution or conviction in a court. Definitely not the same thing.

It might be because girls are committing more crime. Or it could be because the police are getting better at catching girls, or previously let them off with a ticking off (because they were female), or because the nature of their offending is changing, or because policing is changing, and so on. Indeed, it’s even possible that changes in the law mean that some things young women were more likely to do are now crimes, whereas ten years ago they weren’t: if you were to make playing football where there are ‘no ball games’ signs a criminal offence, the number of boys committing crime would increase.

Funnily the report begins the relevant section with:

‘It is important to note that apart from this table, all figures in this section represent the number of offences resulting in a disposal and not the number of young people offending.’

This was to point out that number of offences isn’t the same as offenders (as some offenders get caught more than once), but it also reminds us that many people offend without ‘resulting in a disposal’.

This reminds me of all the problems with police statistics and fear of crime. The more effective policing is, the worse crime seems. Even in a situation where crime is stable, or even falling, more effective policing means more crime detected and prosecuted. It’s only detected crime that makes the statistics or the news: if you’re robbed and don’t bother with reporting it to the police it won’t make the news. Furthermore, it’s prosecutions that make most headlines: there’s stuff to report when the story is being discussed in the courtroom. So the more criminals the police catch, the more crime there is on the telly and in the papers. And so improving the police increases fear of crime…

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Filed under News, Statistics and simplicity