Shot in the foot

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.

Screenshot from the Express & Star website, taken 11:38pm, Tuesday 27th July 2010. Click on the image for a readable version.

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.

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21 Comments

  • I’ve been an E&S reader for as long as I can remember, and I must say that of late I’ve been a bit concerned that standards are slipping. In the past it’s seemed a relatively well-written, sober paper with a slight right-wing bias (but I’ll forgive it that) that’s a step above most local papers. However, it seems to have slipped into laziness, sensationalism, and ‘everything in the public sector is bad’ of late. It’s a pity really.

    I’ve yet to experience a drive-by shooting in Brownhills, or indeed hear of any firearms incidents, and as you rightly point out, these events tend to get talked about. The assault you mention above was the talk of local pubs for some time afterwards, which goes to show that serious violent crime is still, hopefully, not an everyday occurence.

     
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  • Bob Thomas

    I have to agree. I cannot recall any gun-related incidents (and, as a magistrate, I would certainly be interested!). The Star has let its standards drop over recent years. Someone at Queen Street needs their backside kicking, over this.

     
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  • The only thing I can think of is they’re talking about the Lichfield road that Grassmere sits on, and the canal crosses. The 8 firearms incidents might relate to kids shooting cans in the cut with an airgun or maybe rabbits on the sand hills, though I’d have thought if they went to the sandhills the police would have recorded the incidents as being on Wharf Lane.

    Or maybe the whole thing is a lot of crap. Will we ever know?

     
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  • This is just another example of the Express and Star’s negative, sensationalist attitude towards local news.

    Times are hard and bad news sells papers/adverts, so that’s what they concentrate on. I honestly believe they’re not interested in celebrating the region’s good news as it doesn’t sell as well as bad news does.

    I know of at least two occasions where they reported on crimes where there were positive outcomes, yet the outcomes were never reported on.

    Wednesfield High Street is also mentioned in the article (3 incidents apparently) and as someone who lives locally, I can compare us to Bloxwich – nothing major happens here without everyone talking about it, so I find these figures a little questionable.

    Like any data, FOI data can be interpreted and manipulated in different ways – but when you are the region’s primary printed news source, you shouldn’t have any problems in backing up your claims, or responding to enquires about your data.

     
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  • I’m fast losing any respect I had for the Express and Star – I have to read it daily as part of my job scouring articles for mentions of the company I work for and I am starting to detest my morning task.

    Spelling, grammar mistakes and the fact ou often find the same stories repeated in the same paper to fill column inches aside, their style of reporting leaves a lot to be desired.

    They rarely quantify their claims with actual verifiable facts and and as for citing sources – unless its to sensationalise something, or demonise someone it just doesn’t happen.

    As someone on facebook pointed when I mentioned the issues another local site was having with them not crediting stories “A perfect example of “Churnalism”. If they don’t get press releases to churn out then they’ll go to a local website and churn that.”

    It’s just lazy journalism!

     
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  • (please ignore my spelling mistake in the previous comment – I don’t have editors/proof readers to correct me)

     
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  • hacked off

    The Express & Star love FOI requests, it’s a subsitute for proper investigative reporting.
    This story is a result of poor journalism.
    Regional and local paers over the last few years have shedded thousands of reporters , leaving those remaining to stuff the paper with anything that comes to hand.
    Time to do proper research has gone.
    Take the example of Mike Bird’s comments about his pay which this website revealed.
    Any reporter worth his salt would have seen that his claim of only being paid £1.64 hour was rubbish.
    Instead they just throw it in without any checking.
    Five years ago the Walsall desk of the E&S had eight reporters, nowadays they are sometimes running with only two.
    Furthermore they don’t have a Walsall office anymore. The same is true for Walsall Advertiser
    I’m sorry for the reporters but I’m even more sorry for the readers.

     
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  • Facade66

    If you read the header

    Police were called to reports about weapons including shotguns, handguns, air pistols and ball bearing guns….

    Most likely they were kids firing plastic ball bearings from those little guns with the red end cap that you can buy in most newsagents, and someone called the police.

    Actually, I was impressed by the large number of licensed handguns, despite Labour banning them, there must be a lot of vets and black powder shooters round here!

    I also wonder what the “other” category is….

     
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  • sidney

    As a resident of one of the many Lichfield Roads in Brownhills it may surprise you to learn that the police have significant stretches of the Lichfield Road A461 down as being Lichfield Road Brownhills. They seem unable to differentiate between the separate sections such as Shelfield, Walsall Wood, Shire Oak, Sandhills etc and often confuse with the Lichfield Road, Brownhills shown on many maps.

    Is it not surprising that the E&S create a story on information provided by the police when their own systems don’t know where it is!

     
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  • This answers the Lichfield Road “gun” incidents. received by me today from Kevin Pitt of Walsall police.

    Dear Watch Member

    I am sending out the following statement on behalf of Superindent Keith Fraser, head of Local Policing for Walsall Police.

    “I am writing to reassure our communities in Walsall that a recent Express and Star article gave a misleading and somewhat alarmist impression of gun crime in the borough.

    The article: “The most gun-plagued streets across the Black Country, Birmingham and Staffordshire” was based on figures obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

    It incorrectly stated: “In Walsall, police were called to Lichfield Road in Brownhills eight times between May 2009 and 2010.”

    This demonstrates the problem of taking figures out of context and misinterpreting them. In fact, the quoted figure related to a single incident in Lichfield Road in June 2009 when a 14-year-old boy used a CS canister to spray eight pupils at a school.

    The youth was arrested and dealt with. While we would not wish to minimise the seriousness of this individual incident, especially to the victims, it hardly justifies Lichfield Road being dubbed one of the “most gun-plagued streets.”

    Under Home Office rules, a CS canister is classed as a “firearm”. The rules also dictate that although this was only a single incident, there were eight victims and, therefore, eight recorded crimes,

    We can only repeat that taking figures out of context can present a distorted view of the facts and create unnecessary alarm. Having said this, we do recognise that local media play an important role in promoting the safety of the local community, I want to continue to work positively with the media and support the valuable contributiom that they make in this area.

    I would also reassure people in Walsall that their local police will continue to work closely with other partner agencies to serve our communities and protect them from harm.” Superintendent Keith Fraser, Local Policing Walsall.

     
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    • That was Shire Oak then, IIRC? So not really Brownhills?

       
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  • Tip: if a public authority has released data as an FOI to someone else, they MUST release it to anyone else who asks. Usually public authorities have a website section where they list these, but otherwise a quick email will probably do the trick.

     
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    • Thanks, that’s really interesting. I scoured whatdotheyknow.com without success – but I doubt the E&S would use that because it exposes the process fully before publication.

      Cheers for that

      Bob

       
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  • Trevor Brown

    To many reporters not enough stories says me,
    Pommy Trevor

     
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