Friday, January 04, 2008

The evils of "the Daily Telegraph" test

Thats NSW State Labor looking after your children and their wellbeing for you. Who in their right mind, other than lazy deadbeat parents and those that expect all for nothing would send their kids to a Government run school. Then again, you voted for them, you get what you deserve. Stan, Daily Telegraph blog

Will it meet the Daily Telegraph test is a reasonably common phrase in the NSW public sector.

For the benefit of international readers, the Daily Telegraph is a Sydney daily known for its sensationalised stories.

The phrase "will it meet the Daily Telegraphy test" refers to actions or decisions that while ethical and legal might be subject to sensationalised mis-reporting. The effects on decision making are quite pernicious.

Today's Daily Telegraph provided an especially vivid example. It is also an example that illustrates the point I made a few days ago in Australia - failures in public policy about what I see as the growing impotence of public policy in the face of growing complexity and competing demands.

To set the scene.

All applicants for teaching jobs must agree to a national criminal record check for charges and convictions, including spent convictions, for any offences carrying a penalty of 12 months in jail or longer. Daily Telegraph

In the face of growing public concern about paedophilia, the NSW Government introduced compulsory criminal checks for all people applying for a variety of NSW public service positions, including teachers.

The difficulty with this is that while it might stop convicted paedophiles applying for teaching positions, surely a good thing, it also required the creation of new systems, imposed costs and generated a series of reports that had then to be assessed.

Most importantly of all, what do you do with the information once you have it? Do you bring other criminal convictions in on the ground of good character? When should a criminal conviction stop a person teaching?

In fairness to the NSW Government, they built in a series of controls. Cases had to be assessed individually. A conviction of itself should not rule a person out. Information collected as part of the checks should be destroyed after a period.

Now we come to a second factor, Freedom of Information. Again for the benefit of overseas readers, this is legislation that gives people access to information about official policies and decisions. Media organisations are one of the most active users of the legislation because it provides a base for stories.

The Daily Telegraph sought details under Freedom of Information "of the criminal histories of all of the new teaching applicants, including major convictions, the sentence they received and the reason they were not deemed a risk to children."

The information the paper obtained showed that there were 7,084 applicants for teacher positions in in NSW in the six months between November 2006 and May 2007. Of these, only 36 were ruled ineligible.

More broadly, 263 applicants had a "general criminal record." Of these, 128 were given a job.

The Telegraph used this information to mount a major attack under the headline Teachers' criminal pasts exposed.

I really don't feel strong enough to deconstruct the paper's arguments. Perhaps Marcellous does?

For the moment, I would simply note that Telegraph readers are not going to subject the piece to critical analysis, they are simply going to absorb the message that NSW employs "criminals" as teachers and that's a bad thing.


I made a rather spectacular typo in this piece, writing that 36 teachers were ruled inedible rather than ineligible. Thanks to Lexcen and Neil for pointing it out. While I have corrected it now, Neil has kindly recorded it for posterity!

I know that we sometimes consume our teachers in one way or another, but inedible? Really!

Postscript 2

David and Marcellous made some further useful comments.

I have used David's post as an entry point for an amplification of my position. In the midst of professional pressure, Marcellous made a very useful contribution. I love the clarity of his thought and wish that I could match it!


Anonymous said...

Well spotted, Jim. I have responded and the link to that is on my name. I saw the screaming headline just this afternoon in the corner shop, since of course I bought the real paper this morning without even looking at the Tele, as is my wont. The real paper could have been The Australian, or the Other One...

This is a really stupid story, but damaging.

I guess you'll find your typo and fix it, but in the meantime I thank you for it. ;)

Lexcen said...


Anonymous said...

Jim, leaving aside your delicious mis-choice of word, I would like to make a comment on your conclusion: "I would simply note that Telegraph readers are not going to subject the piece to critical analysis".

This strikes me as an elitist view of a fairly large proportion of the NSW population based on circulation figures? This is not your usual thoughtful stance.

Ninglun said the story is stupid but damaging. I agree - but on the other hand, it sold papers, and probably won't be remembered beyond the next large headline.

I always understood that the prime role of a newspaper editor was to make a profit, and that this is achieved largely by maintaining or increasing circulation and, hence, advertising support. Questions of truth, fairness, and accuracy are buried way down in the mission statement - if considered at all.

More to the point, I would be very interested to see the generalisations that you would attach to the other main newspapers in NSW.

And how you would support your opinion (as you more usually do) - as opposed to just baldly stating it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the invitation, Jim. I saw the story yesterday at the offices of my instructing solicitors where I was conferring with them and a client from 10 am to 9 pm for the purpose of preparing affidavits which must be filed and served by 4 pm Monday. I have more conferences today, so don't know when I would have the energy either.

I agree that the Telegraph story was spectacularly silly. I wouldn't be surprised if the proportion of applicants with a general history wasn't pretty much in line with the proportion of the population as a whole with a such a history. After all, this would include any conviction at all, including driving offences, travelling without the right ticket,failure to lodge tax returns when required to, etc etc - in fact, anything which was not simply dealt with by an on the spot fine or infringement notice.

I wonder if journalists' figures would be very much better or different.

The only real complaint that the Tele had seemed to be that there was no document prepared or released which summarized the offences of those with general criminal histories who were not disqualified by those offences from teaching.

But then, that was just what enabled the Tele to proceed to the beat-up. A cursory reading of the disclosure requirements suggest that they extend to charges as well as convictions of any offence whose maximum penalty is more than 12 months' imprisonment, even if the applicant was acquitted or, if convicted, received a penalty which have fallen well short of that. It is also possible that a "general criminal history" therefore includes charges which did not result in any conviction, including acquittals.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you David and Marcellous.

David, I have used your comment as a base for another post. Not attcking what you said, but amplyfing my own position.

Marcellous, I know the pressures. I am glad that you found the time for such a substantive comment.

I will add a postscript to the post.