This morning, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and someone who, presumably, is meant to be pretty good with numbers, was on the Today programme. He was talking about the importance of links with the Chinese, and how our import and export links are blooming. To give us an example of this, he said: “One hundred and sixty million Chinese people watch Downton Abbey! That’s more than twice the number of people in the United Kingdom.”
That immediately set my “that number sounds dodgy” klaxon jangling. One hundred and sixty million people? Hmm. I find it very hard to believe that one out of every eight Chinese people is hooked on the tale of Lady Ottilie Fauntleroy-Brisket having her chauffeur’s love-child. Especially since I’m pretty sure I saw a thing last month saying that 120 million people worldwide watch the searingly dull Upstairs Downstairs remake.
After asking around (HT to Tania Branigan on Twitter), it sounds like the 160 million figure comes from here – a report by the entertainment research company Entgroup, which actually says that (the original report’s in Chinese, so that’s a link to a Wall Street Journal blog on the topic) “Hit British dramas like Downton Abbey have been widely embraced by Chinese audiences, both through the country’s state broadcaster and pirated videos online, and are expected to have 160 million online followers in China in the next two to three years” (my emphasis). So, shows like Downton Abbey (not Downton Abbey) are expected to (but don’t) have 160 million followers in three years’ time (not now). That still sounds pretty implausible to me, but even if it’s true, there is no sense in which 160 million Chinese people gather around every weekend to watch Hugh Bonneville’s breeches in hot action.
None of which matters all that much, I admit. But the 160 million figure was so obviously false, so utterly incredible, that it would be nice to think that our Chancellor would at least do a double-take and check it before repeating it. (Admittedly, we in the fourth estate are not always careful either: the 160 million figure has been repeated in The Independent and, er, The Daily Telegraph. Oops.)
This stuff happens every so often; claims that the Superbowl or the Royal Wedding were watched by more people than are actually alive, that sort of thing. It’s silly, and, I suppose, sort of harmless, although I worry that it feeds into a general sense that maths and numbers are malleable and unimportant.
It is a little concerning, though, when it’s the guy in charge of the country’s money saying it. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had a well-developed spider-sense when it came to obviously dodgy numbers? A basic reality check would quickly tell him it was nonsense. It’s a shame he didn’t run one, through his presumably highly competent brain, before trotting the figure out in a major interview.