Report from the P files

Think of the odder topics of news stories this month: we have had penguins (both boardroom dealings in the biscuits and proposals to bar-code the flippered ones), prostitutes (legalising them and illegalising their calling cards), phone numbers and life on other planets. What they all have in common is, of course, the letter P.

Was this all, in the first two weeks of P-registration cars, a marketing device by the motor industry? We have done some statistical tests.

1-14 Aug Avg

Penguin 64 48.4

Prostitute 104 88.0

Phone 751 707.6

Abortion 266 57.2

The table lists, in the first column, the number of articles in the national press over the first two weeks in August this year featuring each of the listed words. The second column is the fortnightly average over the past year.

Penguins, prostitutes and phones are all significantly ahead of expectations. But the rate of increase of abortions (included as a non-P word to act as a control) is far higher. Yet the Abortion figure is only a by-product of the Pro-life lobby. The word "Pro-life" featured 81 times in the fortnight compared with an average of 5.4. The case for the P-bias seems very strong indeed. For a broader picture, we must compare appearances in newspapers during the first six months of this year with the same period in 1995.

1995 1996

Penguin 619 642

Prostitute 1167 1117

Abortion 708 745

Yuppie 275 270

Ostrich 182 315

Squirrel 223 276

Moose 63 72

Kangaroo 261 190

Penguins and prostitutes have scarcely changed, with a rate of almost two prostitutes per penguin. Yuppies (acting as a statistical control for the prostitutes) remain almost constant. The most dramatic increase has been in ostriches (up 73 per cent) and squirrels (up 24 per cent). Moose are up 14 per cent. The 23 per cent drop in kangaroos is hard to explain.

The crucial test is the stories of life on Mars. Surely, if the automobile spin-doctors have been at work, it should have been Pluto in 1996 and Neptune in 1995 (year of N-registrations). In fact, Pluto sightings in July 1996 were indeed up to 12 from 9 the previous year, but in the same periods Neptune almost doubled from 13 to 24. We conclude that car registrations are not affecting the news.