So when Sir Denis O’Connor, head of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), delivered a damning judgement on the ASBO, the media leapt upon the findings from the report, plundering it for quotes and statistics.
The HMIC report states: “It is estimated that the public only report just over a quarter of incidents of ASB to the police – about 28 per cent. Even this low reporting rate led to around 3.5 million calls to police in 2009-10.”
Several media outlets have combined these two sentences to arrive at a total figure for anti-social behaviour.
The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Daily Mirror and The Sun, to name but a few, inferred from this sentence that there were 14 million incidents of anti-social behaviour each year, or approximately one every two seconds.
But do the papers’ sums add up? Are the figures on which they are based even sound?
Full Fact’s investigation suggests the answers to both these questions may be ‘no’.
The HMIC report does not contain an estimate of the total number of reported and unreported anti-social acts in the UK. But it is not hard to see how reporters arrived at their figures using figures used in the report.
There is a clear problem in applying a percentage derived from a survey of people’s reported experiences of some types of anti-social behaviour to a survey based on actual reported anti-social behaviour.
As well as the erroneous implication that the BCS data measures calls to the police, HMIC also suggests that it is a measure of all anti-social behaviour.
It is not. The categories of anti-social behaviour mentioned in the survey do not correspond to police categories or definitions, ignoring such common complaints as abandoned vehicles and “malicious communications”.
There are serious questions about the way the statistics have been used by both HMIC and the mainstream media.
With warnings about the implications of spending cuts for police power to curb anti-social behaviour, and a new Government keen to make progress on the issue, it is vital that the upcoming debate is served by accurate information. The high level of public interest only intensifies this need.
This analysis has shown that the assertion of 28 per cent as the proportion of total anti-social behaviour incidents that actually get reported is based on a misunderstanding of the statistics, and. for all anyone knows, wildly wrong.
Furthermore while HMIC do not connect this estimate to the 3.5 million reported instances of anti-social behaviour, by putting the two sentences next to each other, it is hardly surprising that the media used the two figures together to get an estimate for total anti social behaviour.
Nevertheless the press went beyond even what the flawed report justifies. There appears to have been some generous rounding up to claim that the figure is 14 million, and even more to say this constitutes an incident every two seconds.
But the real problem is that there just aren’t the statistics available to back up these kinds of claims on anti-social behaviour.
The most recent edition of ‘Crime in England and Wales’, the comprehensive official figures on crime contains the following warning on the use of anti-social behaviour statistics:
“It should also be noted that much ASB be may reported to the local authority (e.g. noisy neighbours) and may therefore not come to the attention of the police. There may also be multiple reporting of the same incident to different authorities (e.g. both police and local council). The BCS has something to offer in terms of public perceptions of ASB but it is certainly the case that our knowledge of the nature and impact of these incidents is not as well understood as for crime.”
Full Fact is now pressing HMIC to correct their report and the press to take the opportunity to make clear to their readers that the figures used in their reports were not accurate.
Edgar Gerrard Hughes & Patrick Casey