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(Mis)reading the riots

Posted by Richard Monday, September 05, 2011

If I were to nominate two institutions least likely to come to an objective conclusions about cause of the August riots, it would be the LSE and the Guardian, two such that manage to be wrong on most (but not all) issues of the day.

Yet is it precisely this pair which is setting itself up to carry out an investigation into the cause of the riots – aiming to interview "hundreds of people who were involved".

Even with the best will in the world, they will have problems. In my experience, when you are interviewing people about recent events, you can be presented with one of at least three options: what the respondents know; what they think they knows; or what they think you want to hear.

Those three, of course, assume that your respondents are generally disposed to telling the truth, but the other possibility is that they will lie to you. Then – and a very common problem – is that testimony becomes "polluted" by what has been heard and seen on the media, through discussions with his peers and even by interaction with questioners, reacting to false cues and biased questions.

As a result, raw oral evidence can be – and most often is – some of the least reliable material you can use. Only when cross-checked, especially with reality, can you give it any weight at all.

I myself have been in situations where all the oral evidence from an incident has pointed one way, yet the forensic evidence has given a completely different picture. Sometimes, though, you have nothing to go on but experience and "gut instinct" that tells you what you are hearing is not true, accurate, or representative.

Much then depends on the interpreter, and where we have – in this case – two institutions that are so obviously biased, one can already tell what the conclusions will be. Like as not they will be wrong. But then, the right answers are probably not wanted anyway.