Getting Shirty

by Quinn

I read a couple of versions of this story the other weekend and I was going to dash off a quick post in response; but time was tight and I wasn’t sure of my facts, so I decided to wait until both those issues were remedied before commenting. There’s a moral in there, somewhere, for somebody.

West Midlands police “wastes money” on new shirts

ran the BBC headline, but the Telegraph, Mail and Mirror also covered the story. The fury is over the discovery that West Midlands police have spent a whopping £100,000 on changing the shirts of non-station based staff from white to black. “It’s absurd to spend money on cosmetic changes at a time when police forces are feeling the pinch,” suggests the inevitable TaxPayers’ Alliance spokesman, Mark Wallace. But what’s this? Did I use the definite article erroneously? Over at the Telegraph, Matthew Elliot of the TaxPayers’ Alliance chips in “Now is not the time for police to make a cosmetic change, like switching the colour of their shirts”.

Now, you may wonder why the TaxPayers’ Alliance feels the need to employ two people to say essentially the same thing – if they’re looking for efficiency savings, then they can have that one for free – but instead lets look at that £100,000 figure. It is a large sum of money indeed; certainly, were I to spend that much on shirts then I would be unable to dodge the accusation of profligacy. Then again, last time I checked I wasn’t a police force serving “nearly 2.6 million inhabitants” (source: Wikipedia). If I trust my maths (and I don’t, and neither should you; grab a calculator before you take this as fact) then that £100,000 works out at around 4p per resident of the West Midlands area. Of course, not all residents are taxpayers; I reckon some people will be paying upwards of 10p towards those shirts. But all those 10 pences add up; specifically they add up to the suspiciously round figure of £100,000, which is a big number, with lots of noughts. Is it money well spent? Well, we simply don’t know. Because the journalists employed here are useless. Evidently. Allow me to explain.

I read these articles, and a whopping yet oddly unasked question kept occurring to me; namely, is this £100,000 on top of the money the police would have been spending on white shirts anyway, or instead of it? It seems so blindingly obvious a question that I find it amazing that no one saw fit to ask, or to clarify the matter in their article, but apparently no one did. But it’s pretty pertinent; on the assumption that West Midlands police would be buying shirts for their staff anyway, what does this £100,000 actually relate to? And once you’ve asked that question, why stop there? Why not go on and try to find out other relevant information (the technical term for this is “journalism”); we can probably assume that some of that £100,000 is down to having to replace everyone’s white uniform shirts in one fell swoop, but what is the unit cost of each black shirt compared to a white one? Are they more, or less, expensive? Are they more, or less, hard-wearing? Apologies for getting all “1066 and all that” on your ass (as I believe the hepcats say), but depending on the answers to such questions we could range from one extreme, where the police are spending £100,000 over and above what they would have spent on white shirts in order to procure more expensive and flimsier shirts – this is a bad thing – to the other extreme where they would be spending £100,000 minus what they would otherwise have spent on white shirts in order to kit their officers in less expensive yet more rugged, longer-lasting gear; that is potentially a good thing. But rather than ask the questions that need to be asked to prevent their stories from being cobblers, instead the media collectively seem to have just sellotaped together a Press Association story with some added quotes from the TaxPayers’ Alliance and considered it job done. Now, I don’t expect the ideological twits at the TPA to want to go looking for the actual facts of the matter, but how not one journalist seems to have had his or her curiosity slightly prickled and thought to get the answers to the bleeding obvious questions without which their articles are meaningless, I do not know.

Now, journalists do far worse things than this, I know. This seems at face value to be down to laziness, albeit a laziness that allows a story to be put about that fits in with a popular media agenda; and we know that journalists also deliberately lie, twist facts and quote out of context in order to try to mislead their readers into drawing nasty conclusions. That I don’t generally tackle such stories is because people like Anton, 5CC, MacGuffin, uponothing and Jonathan do it so much better than I do; that and, while I often read a tabloid story and think “that’s bollocks”, I don’t usually have the time or inclination to look further into it, especially when I reckon that one of the above named is usually already on the case and doing the leg work. I also rarely have a background knowledge to give me a head start in taking the media to task; but I do know about shirts (I possess several, in varying colours and fabrics), I can follow the logic of what it must be like to have to procure staff shirts, and I can spot a gaping big hole in a newspaper article. This is part of the reason why I have written about such a trifling matter as police shirts, rather than, say, a more important matter such as this repulsive bit of journalisting.

But in fact the main reason I have written this post is not to criticise journalists; they’re just collateral damage. No, I’ve actually mentioned my key point already, and I’m writing this here because a realisation hit me as I was mulling things over. Do you know what it is? Any ideas? No?

It’s my earlier line about the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and my belief that

I don’t expect the ideological twits at the TPA to want to go looking for the facts of the matter

Because we know that the TaxPayers’ Alliance are just a bunch of rentaquote oafs there to pad out stories such as these. We know that they aren’t a serious think tank dedicated to the efficient running of government; but they claim to be, and they damn well should be. When a paper comes calling, asking them for their opinion on wasteful spending, they shouldn’t just dash off a quick spleen vent; they should investigate it, and then come back with a proper analysis. But they don’t appear to have done that, quelle surprise; this waste of server space is all I can find on their website, while both of those underemployed TPA spokesmen’s dismiss West Midlands police’s action as a merely a “cosmetic change” without apparently even being aware of the police’s justification that officers find the new shirts less restrictive and more comfortable. On the assumption that even the TPA believe that the police should both exist and wear a uniform, why didn’t they at least think to ask those obvious questions I raised above, even while deadline-bound journalists couldn’t be bothered? Why did they seemingly just respond “wah!”to that headline £100,000 figure, rather than investigate the long run costs or savings of this decision, as one would expect of an organisation genuinely interested in value for taxpayers’ money? Why do they only ever seem to call for more and more cuts in public spending, when they should be at least as concerned about blind, stupid cuts; for as public borrowing is just taxation deferred, can’t rash cuts just be public spending deferred? And why am I not in the least bit surprised by the way they have acted, and why do I expect so little of them?

Well, we know the answers, don’t we, and with luck I’m signing off here and you can consider this my last post on the TPA. Thing is, a proper taxpayers’ organisation genuinely holding government to account and actually doing what the TPA claims it does would be a good thing indeed. Shame the TaxPayers’ Alliance we have is broken.

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