Say what you like about Owen Jones – it’s not like he’ll notice: he will long since have blocked you on Twitter – but he makes the most admirably formidable performer in TV and radio debates.
Fluent, brilliant at interrupting, apparently well-informed, unfailingly polite in the green room, and possessed of an undeniably cute, startled-bushbaby charm, the boy Owen has become the go-to left-winger of choice for all the BBC’s myriad political programmes. And the more often he does it (which is every hour God sends, basically), the better he gets. Is it any wonder that those of us who have to do battle with him approach our encounters with a certain trepidation?
But Owen Jones has a chink in his armour – and it has been cruelly exposed in a series of tweets by spy author and investigative blogger Jeremy Duns. Basically, Jones has been caught out playing fast and loose with his killer “facts” in his bestselling new book The Establishment.
One killer fact, which Jones has been repeating quite a bit on his promotional tours, is the amazing statistical revelation that
It’s amazing not least because it’s completely untrue. As Duns goes on painstakingly to demonstrate by referring to the original study quoted by Jones.
Problem number one: It doesn’t say “forty-six of the top fifty”. It says 46 per cent of the top 50. So Jones’s misreading of the report has exaggerated the problem he describes by 100 per cent.
Problem number two. The study wasn’t as recent as 2012 (though presumably it may have suited Jones to overlook this detail to make his research look more up-to-the-minute) but dated back to 2004.
So, as Duns notes, Jones’s “92 percent from a 2012 study is actually 46 percent from a 2004 study. Very different things, these.”
Indeed. But never let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh? Jones certainly hasn’t. This fake statisticoid has made its way into a number of promotional speeches he has given on the subject, including one at the London School of Economics (where it was enthusiastically tweeted by Bonnie Greer – and then retweeted 588 times by others), one to Channel 4 news, and one to a left-wing vlogger called Artist Taxi Driver.
There’s plenty more where this came from.
Here, for example, is what Jones says in his Introduction to the book:
“The legacy of centuries of aristocratic power has not vanished, though: more than a third of British and Welsh land – and over 50 per cent of rural land – remains in the hands of just 36,000 aristocrats.”
Jones gives the source as Country Life.
But when you go to the source what it actually says is:
Do you see the difference?
Jones apparently couldn’t. (Or, as above, perhaps it suited him not to). But the difference is that the 36,000 members of the CLA – aka the Country Land and Business Association – are not all aristocrats. Indeed, most probably only a minority of them are. Anyone can join the CLA, simply by paying the membership fee.
But obviously if you’re engaged in class war and toff bashing “36,000” is a lot more exciting a figure to quote than whatever the tiny real number is.
Let me give one more small example, quoted here by Michael Ezra:
He provides an unsourced 1970s quote from Harold Lever. When, post-publication, he was asked for a source, he claims it came from an interview with Neil Kinnock. It is at no point clear that this quote is based on a decades-later recollection from someone else.
Now individually these instances of sloppiness may seem no big deal. But cumulatively, they raise serious doubts about the credibility of both Jones and his thesis. If you’re going to write a book which rides your hobby horse that the Establishment is basically a free market, right-wing plot against the ordinary working man, the very least you owe your readers is to give your slipshod thesis a veneer of plausibility by providing some concrete, fact-checkable examples of what you mean.
In this Jones has failed. And if I sound piqued, it’s partly because I remember the trouble I went to with all the cross-referencing and fact-checking when I wrote my book Watermelons. It didn’t sell nearly as well as Jones’s book (obviously not: it didn’t have the full force of the BBC plugging it every turn), but that is not the main reason for my irritation. What it is is that whenever I came across fantastically helpful quotes which I couldn’t source, then either I cut them out or I searched and searched and searched until I could confirm their authenticity and provenance.
Why did I do this? Well, first for simple reasons of basic professionalism. But secondly, because I knew that if I were going to write a book attacking the vast, supremely well-funded environmental industry there would be gazillions of greenies and Guardianista types just itching to demonstrate my ignorance and incompetence by showing where I’d got my facts wrong. So too, I fear, would the climate sceptical community – who, as a rule (and I know the Warmists will find this implausible, but it is my experience), place very high value on rigour and accuracy.
I’ll leave the final question to the heroic and admirable Jeremy Duns. In one of his subsequent tweets on the subject, he wondered whether if a right-wing journalist such as Toby Young or myself were to be caught out playing fast and loose with the facts in the way that Jones does we would be granted quite such leeway as Jones has.
My suspicion is not – and I have various theories on this, which I won’t go into now. Perhaps you can offer some theories of your own in the comments below.
All I will say is this. Next time you see Jones on TV – especially when he’s up against me – fluently rehearsing a selection of apparently well-researched factoids in support of his argument, I do hope you’ll take the trouble to check whether it’s his lips you can see moving, or whether it’s only his arse cheeks.