9 out of 10 tents are empty? Bullshit.

by Alex Hern

So you may have seen the claim, made by the Times, Telegraph and BBC Radio 5 (possibly others – and I’m sure these three sources have multiplied like mad) that nine out of ten tents at Occupy London are empty.

I call bullshit.

The source given by all three is infrared footage from a police helicopter. Already, two of the three raise questions – both the Times and Radio 5 incorrectly attribute it to the Met, when in fact the City of London police shot it. The Times has a helpful screencap:

What they are arguing, then, is that the glowing tent in the middle has someone in it; that all the black ones don’t; and that this pattern is repeated throughout the camp.

The telegraph attempt to go one better, and have a video of the camp, shot with IR:

But hang on. What’s that we see in the Telegraph video?

Most tents are opaque to infrared.

This is, of course, to be expected; heat escapes through infrared, and it would be a pretty poor tent that didn’t attempt to keep at most of the heat inside. In fact, if you watch the video again, you can tell which tents are insulated and which aren’t: some are translucent, and some are opaque.

There is no way that counting the number of glowing orange tents in footage such as this can tell you how many tents are actually occupied.

Knowing this, I was curious as to where this figure of nine out of ten tents being empty had come from. So I called City of London police. They confirmed that they had not claimed that statistic (and confirmed that they had produced the footage, putting at least one confirmed piece of bullshit in the Times story). I also got a confirmation from another source that this footage would not be appropriate to draw these conclusions.

Now, reading the ledes, it is at least the case that no one has actually attributed this claim to the police. The Times is typical:

Nine out of ten of the tents outside St Paul’s Cathedral are empty, thermal images gathered from police helicopters suggest.

Of course, the images suggest no such thing. But who thought they did? Well, there is one other constant between the Times and Telegraph stories, and that is the presence of Matthew Richardson, a councillor in the Corporation of London. And sure enough, he provides the money quote:

Thermal imaging has shown that most of those tents are empty — about 90 per cent. It just shows that the majority of people don’t have the conviction to stay here. They are here to cause trouble, and leaving a tent here is a way to do that.

The 90 per cent figure is clearly pulled out of his arse, and not some scientific conclusion, as the Telegraph’s “it can be revealed” suggests; and even if he had bothered to actually count the number of tents, the claim cannot be supported by the evidence.

This is shoddy, shoddy journalism, and the Times, Telegraph and BBC should retract the stories.