According to various elements of the press this week, a study has taken place which has shown that thousands of businesses in the North of England are demanding that HS2 be built. There is however one problem with these headlines, they are the product of spin and are based on no facts whatsoever.
On Thursday 6th June Addleshaw Goddard, a law firm that has so far has been paid at least a quarter of a million pounds directly from HS2 Ltd and is an embedded part of George Osbornes Northern Powerhouse Partnership vested interest lobbying blob, produced a report entitled “Backing Northern Powerhouse Rail”. Osborne himself is credited with the foreword, which states “Addleshaw Goddard has surveyed 5,000 businesses across the North of England asking about the impact of improved rail infrastructure on their business. The message coming loud and clear is that HS2 and NPR are critical for businesses to remain, grow and invest in the North. Government must hear that message and provide the funding the Northern Powerhouse so badly needs.”
The obligatory press release was sent out accompanying the report which caused the Yorkshire Post to state that “Thousands of Northern businesses tell Government – ‘back HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail’”, Granada went with “Support for HS2 from businesses across the North West”, clearly getting the pre-release and breaking embargo the Northern Echo said that “Thousands of businesses to call for backing for HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail”, while the Guardian headline of “Northern firms throw weight behind HS2 and new east-west rail line” was followed up with the statement that “The vast majority of businesses in the north of England want the government to continue with HS2”, though nothing was as truly bombastic as Business Live, who went as far as saying “HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail will ‘eradicate’ UK’s north-south divide, thousands of businesses say”.
The problem is that none of that seems to be true, especially those bits about HS2.
The first thing to deal with is this ‘5,000 businesses’ thing. It was quite remarkable that the Guardian saw this as ‘The vast majority of businesses in the north of England’, as a simple search for how many businesses there are just in Leeds shows that there are 32,000 businesses based in the city large enough to be VAT registered, plus a further 6,000 that are not, so far from being the ‘vast majority’ of northern businesses, 5,000 would only be 13% of just one city.
But far more importantly, the report very clearly and very carefully never actually claims at any point that 5,000 businesses took part in their survey, it’s just that either the journalists were exceptionally lazy or the press release sent out by the HS2 lobbyists was worded to be deliberately ambiguous. Page 3 of the report headed ‘Survey Results’ frames those results with the line “Of the 5,000 businesses surveyed, respondents told us:”, so what this actually admits is that Addleshaw Goddard sent out 5,000 questionnaires, or to put it a better way most likely sent out 5,000 junk emails, and very specifically at no point do they make any estimate or claim as to how many firms actually responded. If journalists don’t pay full attention and assume there were actually 5,000 respondents well that is their affair, and I doubt anyone at NPP or Addleshaw Goddard will be rushing to point out that they should correct their mistake.
The other thing is what they actually responded about, as it is uncertain as to whether there were any questions in the survey about HS2 at all. One thing is clear, while the report is peppered with quotes from the usual tired old HS2 cheerleaders, there is no mention whatsoever in the survey results about what firms said about HS2. So you have to assume – if you can actually be bothered to read the report opposed to just the almost certainly deceptive press release that accompanied it – that there weren’t actually any questions about HS2 in the survey. It’s either that or that the businesses were surveyed about HS2 and they didn’t support the project, hence why the HS2 lobbyists didn’t publish those results. The only other possible explanation is that the authors have decided that in their narrative NPR could only ever follow on from HS2, so therefore if you say you support NPR you are saying you support HS2, whether you know it or not.
But why let any of that get in the way of a good headline?