Catholic Voices, Cherrypicking and CiF Belief

The Guardian’s CiF Belief section is currently running a head-to-head debate article which pits Austen Ivereigh, co-ordinator of Catholic astroturfing operation ‘Catholic Voices’, against Tina Beattie, a professor of Catholic Studies* at the University of Roehampton.

* Quite why anyone would feel the need to study Catholics, least of all at a superannuated former-HE college, is anyone’s guess although it does conjure up moderately amusing mental image of laboratory walls lined with row after row of ageing white male celibates in wire cages, all desperately hoping for a break-in by the Catholic Liberation Front.

The debate, such as it, is pretty much what you’d expect – meh! – but what did pique my interest is Ivereigh’s opening paragraph or, to be much more specific, the hyperlink in his opening paragraph:

Across the channel, in one of the most remarkable civil-society revolts of modern times, close to a million people took to the Paris streets last month to protest against same-sex marriage. In the UK, on the other hand, a great silence supervenes; the media barely consider it worth debating. The “equality” frame, expertly constructed by Stonewall’s lawyers, has silenced us: who dares to favour “discrimination”? But the hard questions about the drive to gay marriage must still be faced.

Don’t bother clicking the link just yet, all you’ll get is the following message:

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What’s interesting about this link, which Ivereigh offers up in support of his assertion that ‘close to a million people’ protested against same-sex marriage in Paris, is not the ‘sorry, page borked’ message but where the link leads –

– to a local ABC affiliate station, KLKN Channel 8, with a coverage area of around 500 square miles centred on the city of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Lincoln, itself, as a population of around 258,000, which makes it roughly the same size in population terms as Rotherham, while the Lincoln Metropolitan Area, which consists of two counties – Lancaster and Seward – has a total population on just over 302,000, around the same as Doncaster. Seward, which is the next largest urban area after the city of Lincoln, had a total population of just 6,133 at the time of the 2010 US census.

All-in-all, that seems a bit odd choice of hyperlink, or at least it does until you cast around for other news reports relating to the same protest and discover that the official police estimate for the number of people who showed to protest against same-sex marriage was just 340,000 – most the reports I’ve seen don’t even to include that figure and just refer to ‘hundreds of thousands’ of protesters.

Metropolitan France – i.e. the big bit in Europe – has a population of around 63.5 million of which 2.23 million live in the city of Paris. However. the Paris Metropolitan Area, which is broadly equivalent to Greater London plus it’s main commuter belt, had a total population close to 12.2 million people in 2006.

So, Ivereigh’s ‘remarkable civil-society revolt’ attracted, according to police estimates, around 0.5% of the French mainland population, or 2.7% of the population of the Paris Metropolitan Area in a country where polling suggests that anything from 52-65% of the French population are in favour of legalising same-sex marriage.

Estimating the scale of protest marches is, of course, anything but an exact science and there is often a marked disparity between official estimates given by the police and those provided by a protest’s organisers, as reflected in this article from The Guardian’s Datablog which includes both police and organisers’ estimates for the scale of 18 major UK demonstrations ranging from the first Aldermaston march, in April 1958, through to the TUC’s 2011 ‘March for the Alternative’ – and that seems to the issue here as Ivereigh’s ‘close to a million’ claim reflects the organiser’s estimate for the size of the march.

Fair enough, these things happen – although it still doesn’t explain why Ivereigh had to resort to linking to a report by small American TV station situated, from a British/European perspective, in the arse-end of nowhere in an effort to supply a bit of news coverage to stand-up his preferred figures…

…Or rather it didn’t, until I took a look at how the major US/global news websites covered the march, which took place in January, and found that rather a lot of them had run wire copy provided by Associated Press with a photograph of the march that carried the following caption:

People take part in a protest organized by French far-right party Front National (FN) against gay marriage in Paris on Jan. 13, 2013

Now that explains a lot, doesn’t it.

To be scrupulously fair, it’s nigh on impossible to work out who might have actually organised the January march from the coverage it got in the English Language press. Most reports seem to get no further than stating that it was backed by the Catholic Church and the ‘mainstream centre-right’ and it does appear that Martine Le Pen made a point of not turning up. So, tying it in to the far-right Front National could well be the equivalent of labelling a protest as being ‘far-left’ or Trotskyist solely on the back of Socialist Worker turning up to try flog a few papers or labelling protesters as anarchists because an aging punk turned up in an old Crass T-shirt.

Or maybe not – who the hell knows for sure?

Nevertheless it does throw Invereigh a bit of a curve ball, especially when writing for The Guardian, forcing him to cast his net into the back of beyond for an link to go with his ‘close to a million’ claim and making the cherrypicking just that bit too obvious to be overlooked.

As a great philosopher once wrote: naughty, naughty, very naughty.