Reporting under purdah

It’s not as if reporting the referendum used to be an easy task. For weeks and weeks, journalists like me have been trying to steer our way through misquotations, half-facts, lies and inaccuracies. Given that the EU is such a vast topic, it’s been easy for both Brexiteers and Bremainers to only provide the facts that support their claim, leaving out information – even if true – because it supports the opposition. And yes, for every statistic (for example the 350 million pounds that the UK sends to Brussels per week), there is at least one more that stands against it (for example the 165 million pounds that the UK gets back from Brussels every week).

This was challenging, yes. But we got used to it. Albeit, it did not stay that way. On Tuesday, I encountered another hurdle to reporting the referendum in a factual, balanced and unbiased way. It has a funny name and does not originate from politics, but from the world of faith. “Purdah” initially came from Persia and was, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, acquired by the Muslims during the Arab conquest of what is now called Iraq in the 7th century a.d.

The encyclopedia defines it as a “practice that was inaugurated by Muslims and later adopted by various Hindus, especially in India, and that involves the seclusion of women from public observation by means of concealing clothing (including the veil) and by the use of high-walled enclosures, screens, and curtains within the home.”

This is of course not what “purdah” refers to in the UK. Here, it means that civil servants are restricted with regard to what they publish in the run-up to a significant date, mostly an election or a referendum date. “During the purdah period before the forthcoming EU referendum, central and local government are prohibited from publishing material relating to the referendum although some exemptions apply”, a parliamentary briefing states.

The key words here are “publishing material relating to the referendum”. And that’s where I unexpectedly hit a wall. For one of my stories for DIE WELT, I tried to find out what kind of goods the UK exports to Germany and what kind of goods it imports from Germany. Thanks to UK Trade & Invest, I already knew that Germany is the UK’s most important trading partner in Europe. Since 2009, UK exports to Germany have increased by 23% to 43.3 billion pounds in 2014.

I also knew that the UK exports mineral fuels, machinery, vehicles and automotive components to Germany, as well as aircraft, electrical equipment and pharmaceutical products. What I did not find though was specific numbers for both the UK and Germany. At DIE WELT, we are planning to publish a table with the “Top 20 goods exported into the UK” and one with the “Top 20 imported from the UK”.

Unfortunately, the Office of National Statistics did not have this kind of data. They forwarded me to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, HMRC. And that’s where I made the acquaintance of purdah. My request was stuck in the press department for two days before I phoned them up and asked about the tables we had spoken about before. “I am afraid that, owing to purdah restrictions, all I can provide you is what we have already published”, the spokesperson said.

Which was not want I wanted to hear. I thought this must be a joke, but no. As I found out, data about whether the UK sells more cars or insurances to Germany is hugely political and thus cannot be disclosed, at least not in a new form in which it hasn’t been published before.

It’s not as if HMRC does not have this data – it’s right there, in one of their data bases. The problem is that a new composition of existing data and a subsequent publication by DIE WELT – by the way, a German paper with no English edition and thus not many readers in the UK – would be considered as a breach of the purdah rules and is thus not going to happen. “We don’t want to see this potentially impacting the debate around the referendum”, the spokesperson tried to explain.

This got me even more irritated, given that I was asking for data on trade. Dry statistics, rows of numbers. By trying to assess the importance of the trade relationship between Germany and the UK, my story could be influencing the potential outcome of the referendum, I was told. I am of course honoured that people think that any of my stories makes a difference to voters in Britain but to be honest, that’s not the most realistic assumption to be made. It’s interesting that purdah seems to have successfully quieted even HMRC.

This leaves me in a state of surprise. So at times when public interest, not just in the UK but also in other European states, is particularly high – in those final weeks before the referendum – there is no publicly available data on something as basic as the type of products traded most between Germany and the UK? No wonder that this debate is dominated by so many half-truths and inacurracies, given that access to the “real thing” is in most cases denied.

Thankfully, HMRC seems to be not the only body in possession of this data. I will now collaborate with the Atlas of Economic Complexity, a project between Harvard University and the MIT in Boston. They have some of what I am looking for. It will be slightly outdated – the latest data they have is from 2014 – but that’s more than I hoped for after my exchange with HMRC.

So that’s purdah. Let’s see what else gets in my way reporting the referendum.

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