Lies, damned lies and statistics, by Chris White

In what may well prove to be a gross misjudgement, Olaf Schultz as the man in-line to replace Angela Merkel, blamed Brexit for the petrol crisis in Britain. Others in the EU and UK have said much the same - but fake news has now become the hallmark across Europe when it comes to both Brexit and the pandemic, writes Chris White for EU Today.

Inspiration for such remarks includes Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s offer of short term visas for EU drivers. Such talk ignores the obvious facts and appears designed to placate the media. History shows us that wars of words become just that - wars.

Stag Pub

Over a century ago the man who twice became the UK’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, coined a statement that sums up the political situation today: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics” a line that has gone down in history.

As the first day of the petrol crisis in the UK unfolded a daily tabloid newspaper, The Sun, ran an exclusive interview with an HGV driver who was one of several who quit their jobs driving petrol tankers causing half-a-dozen garages to run out. The reason given was “low pay and appalling hours”.

The shortages in those half-a-dozen garages quickly became a crisis in the media and social media causing public panic.

More than three years ago Steven Pinker wrote in the Guardian that the consequences of negative news are themselves negative. “The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences” he wrote in February 2018.

That the media is largely responsible for the crisis that has engulfed the UK is clear. The incredible stupidity of the public is not new. History is shaped by such panic and misconceptions. Rather than a democratic pillar the media, particularly in the UK, has become a threat to democracy.


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Having been asked to write on the subject for EU Today I decide to find out for myself what being an HGV driver was like and arranged to travel to Brussels from Kent and back in a large van driven by Alan, an HGV driver who now runs his own removal business.

I learned at first hand that driving HGV’s is an unpleasant job in most respects. Passing through customs and frontier controls was heart stopping. Seeing heavy lorries parked in motorway lay-bys, their drivers sleeping in their cabs was depressing, and watching miles of tail-backs caused by checks and inspections on the route from Ostend to Calais caused us to worry what delays we would endure on our return journey.

Alan observed that traffic jams put enormous pressure on HGV drivers as the delays count as driving time and force them to stop and rest as their hours are logged. “HGV drivers have been quitting for many years because life behind the wheel is dreadful and the pay is not good enough”, he told me. Having seen it first hand I can only agree.

So let’s deal with ‘damned lies’ and ‘statistics’. I had to turn to a publication called The Grocer to find a report dealing with the story in a well researched way. “Even in the heady days before Covid or Brexit the UK was already lacking around 76,000 drivers according to logistics UK”, it wrote.

Saying that working conditions are arguably better in France, Germany and Belgium, it added that according to ONS data the loss of EU drivers is only a minor cause of the shortage in the UK. It stated that at the start of 2020, before the pandemic, there were 37,000 EU drivers in the UK and and now there are 24,500. Over 55,000 domestic drivers have left the industry in the past 18 months, it added. Many have switched to Amazon and Ocado.

Further research reveals that in 2016 there was shortage of HGV drivers in the UK roughly equivalent to that of today.

Selective statistics have been spewing from the media generally but reality shows that the problem is not just British. The Grocer’s figures cite Poland as having a shortfall of 123,842 HGV drivers; UK 76,000; Germany 60,000; France 43,000; Spain 15,340; Italy 15,000 and Belarus 4,500. So how does that fit with Boris Johnson’s plan to issue temporary visas? What is the truth? Will short term temporary visas for HGV drivers help solve the problem?

Unemployment is high in the UK. At 4.6% now it is forecast to rise to 5.2% in 2022. EU member states have similar problems. The evidence suggests that the current problem is due to corporate exploitation of workers. Boris Johnson should maybe think about reforming the HGV drivers' employment regime.

Politicians should ensure they do the research before they start spouting inaccuracies and the public should recognise that generally media reporting standards have fallen to an appallingly low level. Everyone should stop believing alarmist stories if democracy is going to survive.


Main image: Paolo Miretti.

Image, Stag Pub, Deal, Kent: Chris White.


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Chris White

Chris White

Chris White is a former UK national newspaper journalist and was the founder and editor of a magazine focussed on EU affairs.

Now writing for EUToday, Chris has his own column, 'Chris's Corner'.

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