Not impressed: Why Section 40 must go to protect press freedom

The UK faces one of the biggest threats to its democracy right now. It’s time to fight Section 40

Whatever else you are doing at the moment, stop. This is one of the most – if not the most – pressing issue facing us right now, and if we don’t deal with it immediately, it might be too late.

How important? So vital that on December 15, 1791, the Founding Fathers made it part of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Not the Second Amendment, Third, Fourth or Fifth, but the First. It even outranks that US holy of holies, the right to bear arms, which had to make do with the Second Amendment.

What I am referring to here is the freedom of the press. And in the UK it is under imminent and dire gaggedthreat.

Section 40, as it is referred to, came in as a result of the Leveson Inquiry into press activity and is part of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 that deals with the award of costs in cases where individuals sue publishers for libel, harassment or other complaints linked to news-related material. In short, it orders courts to award costs against publishers, whether or not the claim succeeds, if the publisher has not signed up to be ruled by a Government-approved press regulator.

So, win or lose, every Tom, Dick or Harry with a grievance, however, unjustifiable, will be able to go to court knowing that they will have nothing to pay, because the bill for whatever costs they rack up in the process will be presented to the newspaper, magazine or website in question.

No publisher can afford to continue in business with such a Sword of Damocles hanging over them.

Where some of the problems lie

The Act became law in 2013, but Section 40 cannot be enforced until there is an approved regulator for the media to sign up to. Soon there will be – which is why the threat is imminent – so why doesn’t everyone just sign up and avoid the issue?

The problem is twofold. First, the introduction of a Government-approved regulator to which publishers must, in effect, sign up to by law also effectively gives the Government direct control over the media. Why is this a bad thing? Well if you consider that recent precedents for doing this are in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe and in Turkey under Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, you will begin to get the picture. On January 3, Rachael Jolley, editor of the Index on Censorship magazine, expressed her great fears of this development in the Daily Telegraph.

“There should be a clear distance between any government and the journalists who report on it,” she wrote.

Secondly, the approved regulator in question is IMPRESS, the body set up by Max Mosley, the hugely wealthy former racing driver who has gone after the press, bankrolling the campaign in the process, ever since the News of the World exposed details of an orgy in which he took part in 2008. IMPRESS fields a board of wide-ranging talents, expresses its commitment to press freedom and bills itself as “the first truly independent press regulator in the UK”.

It may be all of these things, but so far no national newspaper has signed up to its rules. Why so little confidence in IMPRESS? Go to their website and click through to IMPRESS Code Consultation for the first clue. This is what it says: “The IMPRESS Code Committee is in the process of drafting a new Standards Code for the press. IMPRESS ran a six week public consultation until 29th September 2016. IMPRESS received over 40 submissions. The Code Committee is considering the draft Code in light of these submissions.”

So, if I understand this correctly, the press must sign up to be ruled by an organisation that has not yet published its binding code of conduct. In other words, they would have no idea what they were signing up to.

Now check what it says under Our Regulatory Scheme on the website: “We have the power to direct the publisher to make a correction or an apology. We also have the power to award financial sanctions (fines) when a publisher has committed serious or systemic breaches of the Code or our governance requirements. We can award sanctions up to 1% of that publication’s turnover, to a maximum of £1m.

“If you believe that you have suffered real harm and you wish to pursue a legal claim for defamation, breach of privacy or harassment against a publisher regulated by IMPRESS, you may ask us to arrange arbitration for you.”

IMPRESS offers no clarity as it adopts sweeping powers

As I read this, then, an organisation that has not yet set out its code of conduct, expects publishers to sign up to that binding code and subject themselves to the whim of anyone who feels that they might have been harassed, without defining what that might be, whilst setting out the powers of enforcement. Don’t forget, the £1m fine would be in addition to the costs, however unjustifiable awarding them against a publisher might be.

Quite frankly, whatever other objections might arise, the lack of clarity across the board here is reason enough to dismiss this scheme out of hand, especially in light of the powers it adopts and the level of potential sanctions.

Section 40 itself is just as woolly. Paragraph 3 (a), for instance, orders that costs must be awarded against the defendant (the press) unless the court is satisfied that (a) “the issues raised by the claim could not have been resolved by using an arbitration scheme…” or (b) “it is just and equitable in all circumstances of the case to make a different award of costs or make no award of costs”.

Sub para (a) is a non starter, because any vexatious claimant would have no incentive to abide by any arbitration, safe in the knowledge that in pursuing an action in court it would be the defendant shouldering their costs regardless of the outcome.

Sub para (b) is so wide and undefined as to be meaningless as reassurance to any publisher hoping to stave off a vexatious claimant’s costs. Quite simply, none would take the risk of publishing in the first place under such circumstances.

The result of all of this? A hamstrung press, which either comes to the heel of those who want to muzzle it, or faces closure because it simply could not afford to continue under such threats and strictures.

Don’t forget, in all of this, that a great deal of other legislation regulates the press already, from the Contempt of Court Act to existing libel laws. When journalists were caught out hacking phones, they went to jail, including Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s former communications director. The law does work already. They won’t be doing that again.

Fighting Section 40 is about defending democratic freedoms

It is vital to understand that freedom of the press is not about protecting dodgy reporters intent on smearing the latest sex scandal across the Sunday tabloids; it is about protecting the very democratic freedoms that you and I have taken for granted as our right for centuries. The Fourth Estate’s most important role is in holding parliament to account and, beyond parliament, in acting as a democratic check and balance that makes the rich, powerful and unscrupulous think twice before acting against the common interest. The press does this by retaining the power to expose wrongdoing and the wrongdoer without fear or favour. Section 40 will remove that check and balance, while introducing fear and favour, and will close the essential democratic divide between the press and Government. It is not in my interests for this to happen, nor is it in yours.

How many times when scandal or tragedy breaks in public life have we heard the words: We must do everything we can to ensure that this never happens again?

MPs expenses; the current football sex abuse scandal; cash-for-questions and many other outrages would never have come to light if Section 40 had applied at the time.

Allow it to proceed and the chances are such horrors will not only happen again, but will continue to do so on a more frequent basis. The real scandal is that, under such circumstances, we, the public, would never get to hear about it. And so the malefactors would know they could act unfettered by the risk of public scrutiny.

As Rachael Jolley says: “If such laws were introduced in another country, British politicians would be speaking out against such shocking media censorship. There’s no doubt that authoritarian powers will use this example to bolster their own cases in imposing media regulation.”

There are peoples across the world fighting for such freedoms, and we are about to give it all up, and oh so casually.

Culture Secretary Karen Bradley needs to remember her responsibility not just to the British public in this, but also to other democracies across the globe; it’s more than a timely reminder for her as one looks out across the West now.

Hacked Off and those supporting Mosley’s stance are extremely well funded and have been making very loud representations to the Government in favour of enforcing Section 40.

You can do your bit to counter this by letting the Government know what you think.

Write to presspolicy@culture.gov.uk NOW, giving your name and address and declaring that you are one of the following:

  • A member of the public
  • A lawyer
  • An academic

and that you want your views to be considered in the public consultation exercise on this matter. Tell them the following:

  1. The Government should repeal all of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act now.
  2. That you believe Section 40’s implementation would seriously damage the press’s ability to hold power to account.
  3. That you do not believe Section 40 will incentivise publishers to join IMPRESS.
  4. That you believe there is no need for further investigation following the completion of Leveson One and the criminal investigations.
  5. That Leveson Two should be terminated.

Alternatively, you can write a letter containing all of the above and send it to: Press Policy, DCMS, 4th Floor, 100 Parliament Street, London SW1A 2BQ.

We haven’t got long to put a stop to this potential disaster. ACT NOW.

Antiques are not dying out, they are just reincarnating

Antiques reincarnation

Human nature means people will always collect, so ignore the
doom mongers who say the antiques market is in a death spiral

COMMENT: Out with old and in with the new. I’m not talking about the turn of the year but antiques, of course. We all know they are finished. Dead. Buried. It must be true because the national newspapers keep telling us that this is the case.

What’s more, they have backed it up with references to John Andrews’ Antique Furniture Index as well as the odd quote from a disgruntled dealer.

I am absolutely certain that this story breaking now could not possibly have anything to do with the time of year or the traditional scrabbling round for holiday season headlines beyond Middle Eastern doom and gloom, domestic flooding or New Year overindulgence.

A slightly closer look at the stories below the headlines tell a slightly different story for antiques, however.

Here the ‘expert’ writers share the amazing revelation that widespread formal dining, along with formal dining rooms with their heavy mahogany furniture, has become a thing of the past. Equally shocking, and something we really all need to let everyone know about, is that people have been turning to IKEA in their droves.

Where have these journalists been since the millennium? Stuck in a Chippendale cupboard?

It’s the news reporting and comment that’s out of date

The Daily Mail tells us that “Shows such as Cash in the Attic have eroded the quality furniture market”, while “Some tables which cost £6000 a decade ago are now only worth £2000”.

It seems to me that the news reporting and comment here is every bit as antiquated and uninformed as the views being espoused.

The fact that run-of-the-mill traditional Georgian and Victorian furniture has suffered greatly over the last 15 years is hardly news. But extrapolating the collapse of the entire antiques market from what has been happening to a corner of the furniture market illustrates the level of expertise being applied here.

Having edited Antiques Trade Gazette, the leading industry newspaper, for 15 years until last year, I have noted one or two things:

  • The word antique refers to anything over 100 years old, which means it is an ever-changing market;
  • Amazingly, tastes change; and
  • Equally amazingly, many markets are cyclical and yesterday’s piece of junk or outmoded collection of antiques sometimes turns out to be tomorrow’s retro must-have.

Janice Turner, writing in The Times on January 2, ironically slightly behind the times herself in arguing that the move is away from antiques towards a cheap throwaway culture even for furniture (hasn’t she heard of the rather more up-to-date upcycling and the return to the BoHo chic distressed look?), says that most people want constant change these days, explaining the popularity of IKEA, and that “even the nicest brown furniture looks like it belongs in a funeral home or a Dickens set”.

I suspect that Janice has never come across nice stuff like the Arts & Crafts Movement and Godwin, or early 20th century giants like Rennie Mackintosh, Gordon Russell and Robert ‘Mouseman’ Thompson. Mostly antiques now and nothing funereal about them. Prices seem ok for sellers, too, so someone’s prepared to pay for it.

Chinese buying bog-standard British antique furniture?!?

And where did she get the idea that the Chinese have developed a taste for bog-standard British brown and are snapping it up as fast as we can ship it out to them?

Tell us the secret to that one and, to paraphrase Del Boy Trotter, next year we’ll all be millionaires, Rodney.

One of the biggest growth areas in recent times has been the revival and development of that most Victorian of obsessions, taxidermy. Now that Hoxton hipsters are seen as rather passé, I await the first stuffed and mounted example on the wall of Shoreditch House or the Groucho Club.

Not that long ago, I found myself looking through the 1928 Olympia antiques fair catalogue. It was not just the black and white photography that looked dated, but much of the heavy Georgian and Regency furniture being promoted in it (most Victorian pieces, at that time, were not yet antique, of course). And it was also not that long ago that fairs like Grosvenor House would vet anything off that was post 1837.

The dealers who do not even know they are part of the antiques trade

Guess what? The antiques trade moved on and discovered the virtues of Victoriana in all its forms. Now they are doing the same with early 20th century design and even, shock, horror, post-War pieces – not even ANTIQUE yet!!

Nor is Art Deco, a trade and collecting favourite for decades.

Sections of the antiques trade are doing badly. Personally, I think it will be a long time, if ever, before the ordinary mahogany bedroom furniture of yesteryear makes a comeback.

But I also think that the great tradition of collecting is here to stay – as the recent Star Wars toys sale at Sotheby’s in New York showed – as is the desire to own great designs and well-crafted pieces.

In my view, the most fascinating aspect of today’s antiques trade is that so many people are utterly unaware that they are part of it. If you have a shop selling vintage clothing, or stand at a weekly market punting fifties and sixties retro chic kitchenware, you are already part of today’s antiques trade.

Great, isn’t it. And have you noticed just how many of the buyers are in their twenties and thirties? Yes, me too.

Give people the chance to see this stuff – and the money to buy it – and they will clear out the flatpacks to make way for it, believe me. Saleroom prices show this now.

As these people start to earn more, and switch on to the thrill of saleroom bidding or visiting fairs and galleries, history shows that they will start to spend at a higher level too.

Technology is also moving on, giving them easier access to what may interest them.

If the trade really were on its last legs, why have so many magazines and websites just published predictions for the year ahead on what is likely to be hot when it comes to the art, antiques and collectables market?

Furnishing trends may be changing because homes are, on the whole, smaller, but it’s a big world out there and people adapt. Key antique statement pieces often form the focus of more modern interiors, and smaller antique collectables still attract buyers in their droves when presented well. Just take a closer look at what’s really going on and you will see.

Hugh Scully, a man sadly ahead of his time

How the BBC reported the death of Hugh Scully yesterday.

How the BBC reported the death of Hugh Scully yesterday.

When Hugh Scully left Antiques Roadshow to launch his online valuations business, it was doomed from the start, as I realised at the press launch

It is 16 years almost to the day since Hugh Scully announced that he was to be the face of Hugh Scully’s World of Antiques, a new online valuations service for internet auction house QXL.com

In what appeared to be an unrivalled coup at the time, the five-year deal was set to net the Antiques Roadshow presenter £3m, made up of an initial payment of £700,000 paid through his production company, Fine Art Productions Ltd, and a further £2.3m profit share, payable on the service’s launch in 2000.

The fact that QXL offered him the chance to take £2m of that money in shares instead of cash illustrates how bullish internet start-ups were as they rode the crest of the first wave of development of what we called the Information Superhighway.

If other plans for the show seemed ambitious at the time, they appear astonishing now, and only serve to illustrate the general naivete of attitudes to the internet in 1999. Scully’s plans included a daily antique auction, collectors’ club and chatroom.

Whether he opted for the shares rather than the cash remains unclear – did they ever reach the 195p option price? – but he was the envy of just about every auctioneer and dealer in the land, and one could only admire his acumen.

However, what was clear to me from the start was that the service simply wouldn’t work.

Food poisoning and the press

It did not augur well when the first of two press launches, held at one of London’s smartest restaurants, ended in mass food poisoning. (It was a reminder, if one was needed, of just how ready investors at the time were to splash the cash, no questions asked.)

Fortunately for me, I had chosen to forego the feast in favour of the second press launch, the next morning, in an internet café on Golden Square. There I spent a couple of minutes interviewing Scully, who was evidently still suffering the effects of the previous night’s debacle and could barely make it through.

It’s astonishing now to recall just how naïve the business model was for the QXL service, but even then it immediately rang alarm bells, especially as it was billed as an all-in-one automatic service, something it plainly wasn’t.

The premise was that those wishing to have objects valued would take a photo, have it processed at a well-known high street store (i.e. Boots) and then email a digital version of the image to QXL who would employ a legion of specialists all over the world to value the item on the basis of the photo.

Quite simply, this was an idea way too ahead of its time, an irony as Scully’s death comes just weeks after Auctionata announced they were buying online valuations service ValueMyStuff.

Three questions which showed Hugh Scully’s project would not work

The answers to three questions I asked Scully that day meant that I left Golden Square certain that the project was doomed. The first was how potential clients got hold of a digitalised image – this was in the age before digital cameras and email saturation.

His answer was that they would take their photo down to a high street shop and have it scanned in before having the digitalised version emailed back to them.

The second question was: Had the deal been done with the high street chain? Answer: Not yet.

The third question sealed its fate in my mind: How much was all this going to cost?

When I added up the initial price of having a film developed – 24 or 36 images printed up at one go was the norm then – the charge by the high street chain of digitalising the image and emailing it to the client, and then the cost of the valuation itself, it struck me that the whole process would come to a minimum of £25 to £30 per client valuation.

Add to this the widespread lack of access to internet services and email, especially among those who had both the objects to value and the money to pay for such a service, as well as all the hassle of taking the photos, visiting the high street, waiting for the email and so on, and it was impossible to see how the service would ever get off the ground, let alone thrive.

If I could work this out in a couple of minutes, surely others would soon arrive at the same conclusion? But it seemed not.

Three months later Scully was billed as a keynote speaker at the first conference on Internet Options for the Auctioneer at Southampton Institute, where most of the industry declared itself still “bewildered and confused”.

Antiques Trade Gazette Internet Handbook advice

At the same time, I was writing a piece for the second Antiques Trade Gazette Internet Handbook entitled Back to the basics of business: Home truths about global communication.

Having trawled through 700 websites to see what worked and what did not, I had my fill of horrors and frustration, concluding: “…however slick the technology, we should not lose sight of the unchanging truth about business success: the technology is the means to an end, not the end in itself. It doesn’t matter how interactive, flashy or colourful your Website, it is the quality of the goods on offer and the quality of the service the customer receives that will determine its long-term prosperity.”

QXL suspended the antiques valuation site 18 months later, a few weeks before 9/11. The deal with Boots had never come through and the public had not proved the eager early adopters QXL anticipated.

Hugh Scully effectively disappeared from our screens. Many other internet start-ups pretty quickly followed suit. They may have failed, but you have to admire their pioneering spirit, even if, in many cases, business sense had been left at the door.

What they did contribute was the development of caution and a more realistic approach to the boundaries of technology when the second wave started. They also did considerable groundwork in software development from which later ventures benefited.

It was reported that Scully had hoped to retain his Roadshow role alongside the new venture, but it was not to be. I only hope that he made enough from the deal in the end to enjoy a fulfilling retirement.

Less box ticking, more research – the survey and statistics crisis

Questionable survey marketing and lazy journalism threaten the media, public debate and the legitimate art and antiques trade

 

Survey image

 

COMMENT: Type in the word ‘survey’ under the Google News search and see what comes up.

I have just done this and found that there are 79.9m results. A significant number of these refer to media reports of new surveys conducted into all aspects of life and business.

Top of page one among the Google results was a Guardian news story on an Amnesty International survey concerning attitudes to the criminal status of abortion in Ireland. It tells us that the findings come from 1000 phone interviews made during May.

So here we have a survey by a named organisation with the reporter giving us at least some idea of its methodology. Not bad, although as Amnesty International is not an independent body but a campaigning organisation, the question arises as to how independent the survey actually was. If Amnesty brought in a professional polling company to conduct the survey on its behalf, the report does not say.

Another story tells of a survey conducted by Car Finance 2 Go, which assesses what annoys motorists the most about each other. It made great copy for The Bath Chronicle and The Gloucester Citizen, but the report gives no details of how independent the poll was nor how it was carried out beyond the Citizen saying over 1000 people took part.

 

Product placement

Global software security group Kaspersky Lab conducted a survey among 1000 people into the relationship between smartphone usage and amnesia.

How did this amnesia manifest itself? According to The Express Tribune, stablemate of The International New York Times, “Many adults could not remember important phone numbers of family members and friends. The survey also showed that people are not doing much to protect their information online.”

What’s more, the survey additionally reveals “Less than a third of the people surveyed put security precautions on their devices”.

By happy coincidence pollsters Kaspersky Lab are on hand with the solution. As the home page of their website tells us, they are “the world’s largest privately held cybersecurity company offering endpoint protection solutions to consumers and businesses around the globe”.

Work your way down the Google list and in many cases it’s the same story: product placement posing behind the fig leaf of a ‘survey’ to burnish the findings with some sort of scientific credentials that make it newsworthy.

The increasing frequency of this marketing technique is no accident; it is a symptom of the erosion of proper investigative journalism in the face of plummeting revenues in the traditional publishing sphere, largely brought about by the rise of the internet and free information online.

The good news is that there are still decent journalists out there who will not fall for this junk. The bad news is that there are others who will. The worst news of all is that many of those who do see questionable surveys for what they are still file stories on them because of deadline pressures – they need to fill space and an ever-shrinking set of resources leaves them with little alternative.

A lot of the time none of this matters. And if you run a marketing department, who can blame you for doing a bit of lateral thinking and turning what would otherwise be an advert into rather more powerful editorial?

The problem is that sometimes it really does matter.

 

TV series promotion

In September 2013, as the then Editor of Antiques Trade Gazette, I conducted an investigation into another so-called survey splashed across a number of UK national newspapers and the Mail Online, now the world’s most visited website.

The UK Fakes and Forgeries Report, as it was referred to in these articles, claimed that 40% of all antiques on the UK market were fakes or forgeries.

On closer view, it appeared that the report’s ‘40% of antiques are fake’ figure had been extrapolated from the finding that 43% of people who buy antiques don’t get them authenticated and that 68% of people who buy antiques are ‘worried’ that they may be fake.

So no evidence at all to support the 40% fakes claim in the survey.

The report coincided with the launch of UKTV Yesterday Channel’s new series of Treasure Detectives.

Needless to say, when I contacted the programme makers they were rather coy about who had actually conducted the survey. Pressed, they admitted that it was actually called The Yesterday UK Fakes and Forgeries Report. So, did they produce it themselves?

When I asked to see a copy of the survey they emailed me the press release that all the other news outlets had swallowed wholesale and regurgitated in screaming headlines.

Even then, the ‘findings’ in the release did not support its own headline – The nation’s love of antiques has led to rise in the number of fakes and forgeries – in any way.

On pressing the TV company again for a copy of the original survey, I was told: “I’m afraid we don’t release the survey data”, before they went on to disclose that the survey was completed by 2000 adults, using a reputable survey company (never named) and then the clincher, “The rest of the report was comment and expertise of Curtis Dowling”, the programme’s presenter, who gained substantial publicity for himself and his new show from the ensuing media storm.

As my later comment piece argued, “Count on it, in a year’s time when the issue of fakes and forgeries is raised again, that statistic will have morphed into hard, authoritative, indisputable fact for the news media – and possibly even Whitehall – to regurgitate, reinforce and beat our industry over the head with once more.”

And I explained that my comment piece would also be posted online in the hope that it would go some way towards diluting that effect of the TV report.

 

The $3 billion question over the antiquities trade

As my comment piece also mentioned, this method of validating unsubstantiated statistics has form, not least in providing ammunition to attack the legitimate trade in antiquities and at Government level in devising legislation to tackle stolen art and antiques.

This dubious practice persists today and news outlets continue to fall for it, feeding the propaganda in the process. In fact, it has been compounded by the emergence in the past couple of years by news aggregating websites that repurpose other outlets’ content to drive traffic to their own sites.

Lazy journalism is often as much to blame as the deliberate dissemination of questionable material dressed up as scientific findings.

In recent weeks, for instance, I have noticed a number of mentions of the figure of $3 billion as the estimated value of the global antiquities market.

As far as I can see, not one report among those published gives a source for this figure. The Toronto Star publishes it in the sub heading to its report Islamic State cashes in by peddling art loot on eBay, Facebook, and lists it again in the body of the report without attribution. Many of the other articles appear to have been inspired by, or even acknowledge, Bloomberg’s report titled Islamic State is selling looted art online for needed cash.

Bloomberg also quotes the $3 billion figure but again gives no source for it. Artnet news, which aggregates other news sources, put the figure in its headline while quoting Bloomberg.

In fact Bloomberg seems to have sourced its article from The Economist’s June 13 online report Save our stones, which makes no mention of the value of the global art market at all, but does mention the figure of $3 billion. However, it refers to this figure as being the estimated value of Egyptian antiquities lost since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, according to Deborah Lehr of American association the Antiquities Coalition.

Have later reports, starting with Bloomberg, confused these figures? I don’t know, but I do know that no one I have consulted has any idea of where the $3 billion figure came from in referring to the value of the global antiquities trade. Antiquities dealers I have spoken to believe the trade is worth far less.

Just to confuse matters further, another online article titled Plundering the past, by David Johnson, states that “A recently released report by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in the University of Cambridge, England, states that up to $3 billion in art and artifacts are stolen each year around the world.”

The Institute’s report is titled Stealing History: The Illicit Trade in Cultural Material, says Johnson.

His article is undated, but ranks at number 3 of the articles on the first page for a Google search under the term ‘$3 billion antiquities’.

A search through the McDonald Institute’s online archive under the report’s title as given by Johnson reveals that it was published in June 2000 and is now out print. Further research reveals one of the authors to be Peter Watson, one of the most outspoken campaigners against the antiquities trade.

 

Background to illicit trade claims

Eventually, I managed to secure a pdf of the report and in paragraph 1.9 it gives a value for the illicit trade in antiquities as $2 billion, attributing the figure as an estimate by Geraldine Norman and qualifying the claim further by adding: “other estimates have ranged down to $150 million. As already pointed out, because the trade is clandestine, reliable data is hard to find.”

So recently turns out to be 2000 and when checking the report’s own reference to the Geraldine Norman estimate, that came from an article she wrote for The Independent titled Great sale of the century, dated 24 November 1990.

Just to recap then, Johnson has an article ranked 3 on the home page of the relevant section of Google quoting the $3 billion figure as applying to the illicit trade in antiquities and giving the institute’s report as the authoritative source. The institute’s report turns out to be 15 years old and quotes the different figure of $2 billion, which it attributes to a newspaper report by then already ten years old, noting that it was one person’s estimate. It also admits that other estimates put the illicit trade at less than a tenth of that figure and effectively further admits that none of this can be relied on because “reliable data is hard to find”.

We are now left with two claims: that the global trade in antiquities is worth $3 billion and that the global trade in illicit antiquities is worth $3 billion (or $2 billion if, as it seems, Johnson has misquoted the McDonald Institute report.

So what? Why does this matter?

Because, as with the bogus 40% of all antiques are fakes or forgeries claim, in a very short time indeed this figure has become established ‘fact’ and is being used widely in arguments against the antiquities trade. How much time will it take before academics who have long been trying to shut the trade down start to say that if the market has such a value, then the risk of associated crime must be very high and the trade should be bashed once more?

Believe me, they will jump on this one as soon as they can.

Whether it was Disraeli or Twain who coined the phrase lies, damned lies and statistics, my belief is that there has never been more need of reliable and truly independent statistics in the arena of public debate.

Those with an axe to grind can do serious and unjustified damage to legitimate interests by manipulating marketing techniques and taking advantage of poorly resourced media outlets that feed voracious 24/7 newswires.

For their part, reporters and feature writers need to be far more circumspect about the information put before them, especially in these embattled times for journalism, or they risk accelerating the rate at which the media becomes mistrusted and irrelevant.