Stalking figures: when ‘facts’ become ‘truth’

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Stalking figures: when ‘facts’ become ‘truth’

While in the process of updating our Briefing on stalking, we continually saw it reported that there are 120,000 victims of stalking a year. This is a widely used figure for example you can see it on the BBC website, in the Guardian, in the Daily Mail and in the Daily Telegraph. It also appears to be wrong.

The figure seems to originate from the report of an Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Stalking Law Reform, published in February 2012, which states that “the British Crime Survey in 2006 estimated that up to 120,000 people experience stalking in any one year”. This statement is, however, unreferenced and we have been unable to find that figure in any official report. Neither the Home Office, which used to manage the BCS, nor the ONS, which now manages the BCS’s successor the Crime Survey for England and Wales, have been able to throw any light on its origins.

In fact, analysis of the BCS shows that in 2005/06 1.806 million adults aged 16 to 59 had been victims of stalking in the previous year (see here, page 104, Table 3.06), more than fifteen times the widely quoted 120,000 statistic. In 2006/7 it was 1.629 million. The data from the 2010/11 BCS, which was published just before the report of the independent parliamentary inquiry, showed that approximately 1.183 million people aged 16-59 were victims of stalking in the previous year (see here, page 101, Table 3.03) while statistics published last week showed that the comparable figure for 2011/12 was 1.126 million. It therefore seems that the 120,000 figure, wherever it comes from, is not the prevalence of stalking as measured by the BCS as has been claimed. In fact, it is a huge underestimate.

So why does this matter? Well it’s not because someone should be criticised for making a mistake (if indeed they have). Everyone makes mistakes. There is also no suggestion that anybody has been deliberately misled. The Independent Parliamentary Inquiry into Stalking Law Reform was making the case for a more robust approach to stalking and their case would have been helped, not hindered, by noting that the actual prevalence of stalking was much higher than they reported. And the Government decided to change the law on stalking broadly in line with the inquiry’s recommendations anyway.

The reason it matters is because it provides a perfect example of how important it is to confirm the validity of facts before publicising them. This fact’ received sufficient public exposure for it to become truth’ leading to it being quoted unchallenged in parliament on a number of occasions and to it informing new laws. While it is unlikely to have affected the outcome on this occasion, it’s not a situation you’d want to see repeated in the future.