Sunday, January 07, 2007

Doing a Harding!

A broken-down Challenger being towed by a tank recovery vehicleIt was last week that the self-important Thomas Harding of the Daily Telegraph told us he could "reveal" something to us, that had come from Hansard nearly a month previously.

I guess these hacks haven't caught up with the reality of the internet, and the fact that we can check on their output, because Brian Brady, Westminster editor of Scotland on Sunday is today playing the Harding game.

In a piece headed, "UK troops' vehicles fail every day", he tells us that, "New figures released by the Ministry of Defence" reveal that the lives of British soldiers are being put at risk because of the spiralling failure rate of armoured vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Brady is someone we have met before, harvesting Parliamentary Questions but this time, without bothering to tell us, his information comes from Hansard 12 December last year, on the back of other information in January - of last year - also from a Parliamentary Question. Not only that, the main information was in the Guardian on 13 December 2006.

Bearing in mind that Scotland on Sunday is a newspaper – in which case one expects a certain immediacy to the "news" offered – this also short-changes the reader who might wish to find additional information not used in the piece. By concealing his sources, Brady makes this more difficult.

Furthermore, it is also a profound discourtesy to the two MPs who actually asked the questions. They were, respectively, Mark Harper and Andrew Rosindell, both – as it happens – Conservative MPs. Brady is lifting their work without so much as an acknowledgement, something which these hacks are rather good at doing.

Writing good stories, however, is not Brady's forte. Even with the basic work done for him, he gets it wrong.

He starts by telling us that crews from a range of vehicles, including battle tanks and reconnaissance vehicles, "reported almost 450 failings in just six months up to the end of last October." So far so good. That is true, although Brady's claim - based on the PQ - that: "At least eight further incidents were deemed so serious that they could have placed personnel in mortal danger," is somewhat over-egged.

But he then goes on to embellish information even further, claiming that the "MoD's list of operational malfunctions among the armoured vehicle fleet reveals that Challengers failed 132 times between May and October last year - a rate of one complaint every 1.39 days." This simply is not true. These data do not record Challengers failing - they record equipment failures in Challengers. And that can be something as unimportant - in the grander scheme of things - as a light bulb.

Not content with this, though, Brady then says that, in the 32-month period from 21 March 2003, immediately after the fall of Saddam, to December 15, 2005, tank crews reported a failure once every 2.5 days. Warriors used in Iraq, he says, failed once every 2.38 days up to the end of 2005, but by last October the technical problems had spiralled to the point where British forces received a complaint about the vehicles every single day. The MoD's revelations list 389 Equipment Failure Reports (EFRs) in Iraq alone between last May and October.

What Brady is saying here is confused and, in its general tenor, wrong. If there is a story that can be gleaned from this, it might be how the MoD is trying to downplay the significance of the "failings". What we are actually dealing with is what the MoD calls "equipment failure reports" (EFRs) and "serious equipment failure reports" (SEFs). Look how these are described in the PQ in December of last year:

EFRs and SEFs are not technically complaints; they are the reporting mechanism used by units for routine equipment support issues. The data does not account for the results of subsequent investigations and therefore does not differentiate between what has actually been proven to be equipment failure, as opposed to operator error or damage sustained as a result of operations. Nor does this data give the severity of any such failures which in many cases have no discernible impact on operational capability or safety.
But now look at how the same things are defined last January:

An EFR is logged if the user believes that "an item of equipment or component has failed unreasonably early in its life, or that it exhibits a design, handling or safety problem". A SEF is defined as "a failure or suspected failure that results in, or has the potential to result in, personal injury, loss of life or serious damage".
Nevertheless, no one can say from these data that they represent vehicle breakdowns or failures, per se. The data simply record users' beliefs that "an item of equipment or component has failed unreasonably early in its life, or that it exhibits a design, handling or safety problem". In one way, they are more serious than simple failures as their nature would suggest a requirement for some sort of remedy over and above repair or replacement - but that does not mean that the "ERF" failures in themselves are serious, in terms of affecting the functioning of the machines.

That said, while we now know the ERF/SEF burden, we actually have no information on the general failure (i.e., breakdown) rate of armoured vehicles, which is what Brady thought he had in the first place and thought he was reporting.

Although we might suspect that the rate of breakdown is increasing, we do not actually have any information on the subject. For that, it is back to the drawing board, making a nonsense of Brady's headline - and his pretensions of being a journalist.

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