On Saturday, 24th July 2010, the Walsall Edition of the Express & Star ran a story that really annoyed me. The story also appeared online at the same time – you can see a screenshot of the story below in case it should ever be taken down. It’s quite the most ridiculous item I’ve ever seen the local paper run, and the implications of it are quite troubling. I recommend you read the article and then come back here having done so.
According to our local paper, in an ‘Exclusive report’ by Elizabeth Joyce (I’m sure I know that name from somewhere…), Lichfield Road in Brownhills is the most ‘Gun-plagued’ street in the Black Country, Birmingham and Staffordshire. The E&S knows this to be true, because we are told that ‘Data obtained under the freedom of information act revealed the streets with the highest numbers of recorded firearms offences’. Apparently police were called to Lichfield Road eight times in the measurement period between May 2009 and May 2010. Done and dusted. Bang to rights, one might think.
Before my fellow Brownhillians go and buy bulletproof vests for that trip up to the local garden centre, I don’t think it’s likely that you’ll be dodging flack amongst the floribunda. A google for ‘Lichfield Road Gun’ returns nothing much other than the article I’m talking about. A similar google for the wider ranging ‘Lichfield road brownhills arrest’ was similarly fruitless.
Surely, if anyone were to know of any iron-slinging going down here in the Northern Wastes, it might be our local paper. Entering ‘Gun Brownhills’ into the Express & Star search box returns one relevant item about a domestic violence incident involving an imitation weapon which came to court in April, 2010, and nothing else. Unpleasant, undesirable, but Hardly Dodge City.
Not to be deterred, I nipped over to the Gun Control Network, a pressure group monitoring recorded gun incidents in the UK. All they had for ‘Brownhills’ in the period concerned was the above domestic incident. This can’t be right, can it?
There is more about this stated data that bothers me. TheYamYam has done sterling work logging firearms stories stories over the period, many of which don’t appear in the small dataset quoted by the Express & Star. This airgun sniper in Bloxwich for instance, the nasty armed robbery in Mill Street, Walsall or even the remarkable drunken gunfire outburst. Arguably just outside the time period but nonetheless interesting, will dogged hacks at the local rag now be labelling placid Park Hall as ‘gun plagued’?
Clearly, something has gone wrong with the research for this article. Either the Freedom of information request was ambiguous, answered incorrectly or misinterpreted, or the data was plain wrong. Perhaps there was some confusion in interpretation of the data. Gathering gun crime statistics by street seems a peculiar thing to do anyway, and I wonder just how the request and article was pitched.
Sadly, we’ll probably never know, as when I requested clarification via the Express & Star twitter presence, I was told that the article was written as a result of an FOI request, and that was that. I could, if I wanted, write them a letter which they may publish, but calls for the data or the background were either rebuffed or ignored. They did thank me for my comment, though, which was nice.
It may seem like I have this out of proportion, and forgive me if I have, however, as a regular reader of the local paper, I’m aware of the Express & Star’s usually high journalistic standards. It seems somehow wrong that an article that would so clearly scare the devil out of the elderly, the nervous and the homehunter should materialise in such an apparently vague way, with seemingly little basis in real events. Were any area in Brownhills, or indeed, Walsall, to be ‘plagued with guns’, I’m sure that the local paper would have been keen to report news of police activity, arrests and inquiries. I would expect that local reporters would posses local knowledge and realise that both Lichfield Roads in the town – for there are two – are quiet, respectable, mainly residential thoroughfares and that any violence whatsoever in this town is notable and talked about for weeks afterward. A firearms incident would certainly draw the attention of the communnity, the police and ultimately, the press. In short, you couldn’t keep a gun problem quiet in this one horse town, yet nobody I’ve talked to in the last few days seems to have heard of anything other than the incident recorded above.
I’m perfectly prepared to accept that I may be wholly wrong and that there may well have been eight firearms incidents in Lichfield Road – but I’d like to see the evidence. I’d like details of the events in question, and where they have been reported. I’d like to know also why other gun crime in the region seems to have been missed from the article. Above all, I’d like the local paper I enjoy, respect and read daily to display the same levels of probity, proof and fair account that it demands from those it criticises in public office, public scrutiny and public service. Brushing off or ignoring valid enquiries about potentially damaging stories isn’t what I’d expect, and whilst the social media presence of the paper is welcome, it would seem that it is not intended as a two-way conversation with the readership, which is sad. People have homes they may be trying to buy or sell in the area, or be operating businesses that may well be blighted by statements about gun crime that seem alarmist on the ground.
Perhaps this is a cautionary tale about open data. With the current rush to publish huge amounts of government data to an unsuspecting public, I am concerned that the data be understood and interpreted properly by people who understand statistics, data presentation and communication. Sadly, as apparently in this case, I fear it may be used instead to justify scaremongering and alarmist reportage to sell newspapers.
This is my home, the place I and my fellow residents love. We have a right to know on what grounds we are being condemned. I’m sure any other person would feel the same.