Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to make a news item - by the Daily Mail

On a long plane journey from the US to the UK a couple of days ago, I was presented with copies of two newspapers - The Daily Mail and The Independent. I browsed through them, and noticed the same story in each, about the most popular girls and boys names in the UK in the past year.

In the Independent, the story ran under the headline: "Oliver, meet Olivia: poll shows favourite names". The top five boys names were:

1. Oliver
2. Jack
3. Harry
4. Alfie
5. Joshua

In the Daily Mail, there was a different slant, under the headline "Now Mohammed topples Jack as No. 1 boy's name". Their list was:

1. Mohammed
2. Oliver
3. Jack
4. Harry
5. Alfie

Hang on a minute. The list is produced by the Office of National Statistics. How come they sent different lists to The Mail and The Independent? The answer of course, is that they didn't. The official list is the one printed in The Independent. The Daily Mail decided to add several variants of Mohammed together, including Mahamed and Mohmmed. For some reason, they didn't combine variants of John, such as Jon, Johnny and Jonny. They also fail to mention that it's long been a popular custom to give male Muslim children the name of their prophet.

Obviously, the Mail is creating a story by playing around with the figures (Mohammed was actually ranked 16th in the official list). But why? Could it be to feed the prejudices of their readers? I hope not. However, I wonder how many pub conversations are now beginning with the phrase "Do you realise that Mohammed is now the most popular UK name....?"


Ash Mashhadi (@inspirationguy) said...

Great post, Alan.

Sadly we can no longer be surprised at the Daily Mail's approach to this 'news' item.

Graham Jones said...

Interesting - but exactly the same issue came up in other newspapers, pointing out that if you added all the spelling variants, Mohammed was number one. This point was not made by the ONS in their press release, but since at least three newspapers said the same thing, I imagine it came up in a press conference...? Or perhaps three different reporters came up with the same piece of mathematical genius at the same time...!

Alan Stevens said...

Ash and Graham, thanks for your comments. I only had access to two papers on the plane, hence my remarks. I suspect that the press conference did feature the fact, though I also note that the Mail story mentions that Mohammed was number 3 the year before, so this addition stuff is not new. However, it remains the case that variants of other names weren't added together. Having said all of that, it's hardly a surprise. I suspect that a survey of surnames would find a lot of Sikhs called Singh.

Graham Jones said...

Well, the Mail is wrong...! The ONS says Mohammed moved UP from 22nd to 16th, though perhaps in Daily Mail language 22 = 3...? And, did the Mail add together Ian and Iain and Iayn and Eian...? I doubt it somehow...! And while I'm on, what about Graham and Grahame and Graeme...where did we feature...? Surely we must have been in with a shot at the top 10...?!

Alan Stevens said...

Thanks Graham. I suspect the Mail pulled the same stunt last year, so it was number three in their world. And while we're on the topic, what about Alain, Allan, Allen....