Spinning the Spanish Main
Lord Peter Mandelson has been about a bit recently. Like the Scarlet Pimpernel, we seek him here, we seek him there and sure enough, there he is, with a pithy little sound bite to fit whatever the media has set for that week’s soundbite agenda. Though sometimes you wonder if it’s not Mandy who’s setting the agenda. This week his compass was set fair for internet pirates. And the media dutifully walked the gangplank.
“It was said this week by a former colleague of mine (anonymously, of course) that I do not ‘get the internet’,” he wrote in The Times last week. “While I am still something of a novice when it comes to streaming and downloads, I have been around long enough to know that piracy is wrong.” You would be seriously hard put to find anyone who has called into question Mandelson’s experience of piracy, both in word and deed. No doubt the topic is uppermost in his mind whenever he dines with his friends on yachts in Corfu. One never knows when or where those Somalian pirates are going to strike.
He continues: “I was shocked to hear that as much as half of all internet traffic in the UK is for the carriage of unlawful content.” I was shocked to learn this too, since this was the first time I had ever heard the 50% figure. Since it would be impossible to monitor every internet connection and reconstruct all the zeros and ones and then ascertain whether the transmission was legal or illegal, and since most of the surveys that have been done of internet use have never come up with a figure for illegal transfers so high, I wondered where Steenie had got this figure from. Not that I believe he made it up. He must have got it from a reputable source. Perhaps it was from his lunch companion sur la mer, David Geffen, the well-known record company executive, top Hollywood producer and Nobel Award-winning statistician (unless I heard that last bit wrongly).
But then as the National Office of Statistics has had cause to comment several times this year, this is a Government which likes to play fast and loose with the figures. And with internet piracy, as with swine flu, it’s like little kids let loose in a sandbox.
For instance, in May the Strategic Advisory Board for Intellectual Property, a government advisory quango, released a report that there seven million internet freeloaders in Britain, costing the music and film industries billions of pounds a year. “Researchers found 1.3m people using one file-sharing network on one weekday and estimated that over a year they had free access to material worth £12bn,” the BBC dutifully reported.
Thankfully, not everyone at the usually sleepy Beeb was taken in. Tim Harford and his team on Radio 4’s More or Less team decided to take a closer look at the authority board’s figures and found not was all as it seemed. The board said it commissioned the survey from a team at the University of Central London, called CIBER, who in turn said the 7 million figure came from a company called Forrester Research. When More or Less contacted Forrester, one of their researchers, Mark Mulligan, he said the figure had come from a piece of private research he had done for none other than…the BPI, the British recording industry trade body that has been vociferous in a draconian crackdown on internet piriacy.
And that’s not all. The 7 million figure was actually scaled up from 6.7 million, a figure based on a survey of just 1,170-odd households connected to the internet. In that survey, 136 people (11.6 per cent) said they had downloaded stuff illegally. This figure was then scaled up to 16.3 percent according to some unspecified formula to account for those who wouldn’t admit illegal file sharing. This was all then scaled up in the BPI research to reach a figure which reflected 40m people online in the UK in 2008. Except that the National Office of Statistics say there were only 33.8m people online that year.
Curiouser and curiouser. Even if you accept the mysteriously adjusted 16.3 per cent figure, that means by the NOS reckoning, there were only 5.6m pirates. If you don’t accept the adjustment, you have 3.9m.
I guess it should come as no surprise that a Government which has overseen and encouraged increasing illiteracy and innumeracy in our schools should be so expert in these fields itself. Proof indeed of the trickle-down effect we heard of so much in the Thatcher years.