Hard News by Russell Brown


It's not OK to just make stuff up

In the past year, Bill Ralston has frequently seemed to have more words to write in columns every week than he has ideas to write about. But I'm not sure if he's written anything as poor and tendentious as his column in last weekend's Herald on Sunday.

He meanders through an intro about the new government's "willingness to give some of the country's top businessmen a big hug and bring them in on finding solutions to the recession" and suggests that:

If National is willing to change the mindset Labour adopted when dealing with business and the economy it might also want to look at changing how the last government approached social policy.

The thick streak of political correctness that underlay Labour's approach to social issues is worth reappraising. It often produced illogical, inefficient, wasteful and downright silly outcomes.

For example, take one of my pet hates, the "It's Not OK" campaign against domestic violence in which a collection of earnest men smugly entreat other men to not give their partners and kids the bash.

That'll be me, then.

Ralston continues:

The last government's strategy was to place the burden of responsibility for domestic violence always on men. To suggest otherwise was heresy, so the bureaucrats produced advertising campaigns solely targeted at stopping men being violent towards women.

Sadly, domestic violence continues unabated. This may well be because the government doctrine of "Blame the Bloke" ignores some very real scientific research that questions the conventional thinking on the issue.

The research Ralston was referring to comes from the Christchurch Health and Development Study, which is one of the most important longitudinal studies of its kind anywhere. In February 2006, Professor David Fergusson announced the publication of research from the study suggesting that "amongst young adults, men and women are equally violent towards partners, in terms of the range of acts of domestic violence examined in this study."

This, said Fergusson "suggests the need for a broadening of analysis of domestic violence away from focusing on male perpetrators and female victims to examining violent couples who use aggression in their relationship."

Fergusson, Ralston declares, was "ignored". He produces no evidence for that claim, or for this leap of logic:

The only rational explanation is that Fergusson's advice was politically unacceptable to Labour. They were cemented into a blindly feminist position of "women good, men bad".

The truth is, both sexes can be bad and trying to attribute blame to just one sex is senseless and futile.

Hey, you know what? I can think of quite a few "rational explanations" that the family violence campaign wasn't oriented around a single study. One is that the study is limited in various ways: the oldest subjects in it are 25 years old; younger than the age at which most people are in family domestic relationships.

Another is that Professor Fergusson has something of a knack for marketing his research to the media -- beyond, perhaps, what that research sustains. (For example, his findings about the risks of cannabis use for early teens were compelling; his attention-grabbing claim in the press to have proven the "gateway drug" theory far less so.)

A third, and really obvious, point is that Professor Fergusson himself explicitly acknowledges that his findings do not tally with those from "other sources dealing with severe violence, such as Women’s Refuge or police complaints [which] report a predominance of male perpetrators," and that it "only applies to young people, and domestic violence tends to decrease with age." He suggests further research.

On the other hand, there is ample evidence, summarised in a fact sheet from the Family Violence Clearing House, that suggests that Professor Fergusson's research should not be regarded as the final word by policy-makers.

Principally, the Christchurch study used a measure known as the Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS), which has been questioned as a useful measure for many reasons, including the fact that as a simple hit-count, it seeks no information on the context, motivation or results of violence. It doesn't count sexual violence or the role of "controlling tactics".

No one is denying that women commit violence in relationships or families. It happens. I've seen it. But the fact sheet notes that that six times as many men in New Zealand are apprehended for family violence offences as women and that 92% of protection orders are sought by women. And that a string of findings from the 2001 New Zealand National Survey of Crime Victims bore out the perception that women face a greater risk of partner violence from men, that women were more likely than men to suffer repeat violence in relationships, were injured more severely, and were more likely to fear their partners. The differences were even more significant among Maori.

The fact sheet also quotes a major US study that found that "93% of all kinds of violence experienced by adult women and 86% of all violence experienced by adult men was perpetrated by men," and one of the original authors of the CTS research declaring "it is categorically false to imply that there are the same numbers of ‘battered’ men as battered women."

We might also look at the 2001 study Domestic violence as witnessed by New Zealand children, which was based on interviews with subjects from the Christchurch study's counterpart, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, on their experience of family violence as children. Only 16% reported partner violence perpetrated by mothers only, 28% by both parents and 55% by fathers only.

[NB: Graeme Edgeler points out that the paper unhelpfully obscures the fact that the percentage of the overall sample who reported mother-only violence is actually 3.9%. He observes: "When you're trying to discuss the prevalence of domestic violence, it would be nice for the write-up in the medical journal to make a little more of the fact that more than three-quarters of respondents reported that there was not a single act of violence during their entire childhood, and that for over 80% the most violent it ever got was a threat."]

The results were in some cases strikingly different to those found by Fergusson in his study of the young adults, in part, the authors theorised, because they didn't use the lower threshold of the CTS, as Fergusson had, and focused on more serious incidents of "violence victimisation". It also found mental illness to be more of a consequence of experiencing family violence as a child than (as Fergusson did) an indicator for it.

There's plenty more to read if you wish, but I think that's enough to debunk Ralston's fatuous claim that the "It's Not OK" campaign was a plot by man-hating feminists from Helengrad.

It might be a reasonable criticism to say that the TV campaign itself would have benefited from a more explicit mention of violence committed by women, but a quick look at the website shows it addresses (non-gendered) "partner violence", violence against children and elder abuse.

And Ralston's declaration that the campaign was "a waste of money" appears to be as idle as the rest of his blathering. According to the last monitoring research on the campaign, 95% of New Zealanders were aware of it, and more than two thirds of those interviewed said that, as a result of the campaign they had spoken to family of friends about family violence. And, of course, the reporting of family violence to police jumped 29%.

Ralston is welcome to think me "smug". And I will have no choice but to regard him as a fool until he stops writing like one.

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