Steerpike

Newsnight’s dodgy coronavirus data

Newsnight's dodgy coronavirus data
Emily Maitlis
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Last week, the BBC show Newsnight found itself in hot water, after its presenter Emily Maitlis was rebuked by the BBC for not showing due impartiality, when she opened the show with a broadside against Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson.

You would think, therefore, that the programme would be on its best behaviour at the moment, and would make sure that it was reporting the facts correctly. Apparently not though. Yesterday evening, the programme included a segment in which it suggested that the UK’s daily death toll from Covid-19 was higher than every other country in the EU combined. The programme even displayed a graph prominently, to highlight the UK’s high death toll.

Unfortunately though, it appears the programme was using flawed data, particularly from Spain. This morning, the Financial Times reported that Spain has recently changed the way it reports coronavirus deaths to dramatically reduce its death toll. As the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch pointed out, this caused its daily numbers to drop from 283 to 1 overnight:

According to the paper, if England used the same method to calculate its coronavirus death toll, it would only have reported 20 new deaths yesterday.

None of this was checked by the Newsnight team though. Instead the programme pulled its data directly from Worldometer, a site which has been criticised as unreliable. According to Max Roser of OurWorldInData, the site frequently makes errors and does not provide sources for its claims.

The UK’s death toll may still be higher than the EU’s of course, but that claim cannot be made by Newsnight based on the data it used last night. It also seems likely that if the programme failed to check its Spanish data, then it also failed to verify the statistics used by other countries as well.

In fairness, Newsnight’s Nicholas Watt did point out on the programme that it is very difficult to make international comparisons when looking at Covid data. But considering that Newsnight is meant to be a public service broadcaster which prizes accuracy over making eye-catching claims – and that it has a budget most media outlets can only dream of – is it really too much to ask for the programme to verify its data before broadcasting it to the world?

Written bySteerpike

Steerpike is The Spectator's gossip columnist, serving up the latest tittle tattle from Westminster and beyond. Email tips to steerpike@spectator.co.uk.

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