The Claptrap OMNI/BUS

From Private Eye, 22 September: ‘In 2015, Brand Finance valued the annual contribution of Princess Charlotte and Prince George to the UK economy at £101m and £76m respectively. To estimate what the royal children could bring the UK economy in their lifetimes … these contributions were projected into perpetuity and discounted to a net present value of £3.2bn and £2.4bn respectively.’  

It is good to know that my old friend John Bullshit and his little-known company OMNI/BUS are still going strong after all these years. John has always shied away from the limelight but, in this revealing interview, he explains himself and the valuable business he has created.

‘I am one of those indolent, semi-corrupt entrepreneurs,’ John says, ‘who lurk in the lucrative shadows where politics and commerce intermingle. As a child in the ’60s, my one ambition was to subvert capitalism. I realised that the twin pillars of capitalism were risk and competition. It occurred to me that if I could start a risk-free business with a monopoly in the market, I could become a multi-millionaire without sacrificing my principles.

‘The business I started was called BUS – the Bureau of Useless Statistics. I saw that, in today’s world, information was king. I could spout the wisdom of Solomon, yet without statistics to back me up, no one would take any notice. But I could talk the most complete bollocks and, with figures to support me, I would be believed.

‘BUS provides statistics to prove any point of view. If you want to argue that sugar causes obesity, BUS will provide the data to support you. If you want to argue that it doesn’t, it will do the same. When you watch the news, and within hours of a motorway closure an economist tells you that this has cost the economy £830 million, that figure will have come from BUS.

‘You will be wondering if the figures are to be relied on in any way, and the answer is “what sort of prat are you?” Of course not.

‘When I started I was more scrupulous. I employed hundreds of researchers, did hours of work, made very little money and still failed to produce the information my clients were paying for. So, many years ago, I fired the staff, dispensed with the offices and started inventing the figures. The business has never looked back.

‘I expect you admire my ingenuity, but to be honest it wasn’t my idea. Some 19th century politician established the Office of Municipal and National Information, which regurgitated endless government statistics. OMNI used to be quite respectable but, in the early days of Thatcherism, as knives hovered eagerly over every budget and ministers demanded proof that unemployment was falling, civil servants concluded that they, too, could dispense with the work and invent the figures. As the word ‘Municipal’ was no longer appropriate in a world where local government was rapidly ceasing to exist, OMNI was rebranded as the Office of Manufactured National Information. Ten years later, the Major government privatised the service and BUS was one of the bidders.

‘From the outset, I promised to run OMNI as a not-for-profit organisation. My altruism was widely admired and endowed government statistics with a spurious respectability. (Coincidentally, the take-over gave a huge boost to BUS, which – now without any overheads, since they are all borne by OMNI – makes an even larger profit than before.) I also let it be known to ministers that, in BUS’s hands, OMNI could be relied upon to produce data sympathetic to whatever the Government wanted to argue. And that if, in a year’s time, it wanted to argue the opposite, we could help there too.

‘BUS was paid a large sum for taking over OMNI, as well as substantial annual fees for its management expertise. The fact that the other bidder offered to pay millions to buy OMNI is neither here nor there, as I have frequently argued in the House of Lords. You cannot put a price on integrity, so why try?

‘I was on the point of selling the business a couple of years ago and taking a well-deserved retirement. Thank goodness I didn’t. Along came Brexit and business has been booming like never before. BUS supplied statistics to both sides in the referendum campaign. That figure of the EU costing us £350 million a week: where do you suppose that came from? Yup. To show their gratitude, the Leave campaign even put the figure on the side of a bus.

‘Once the referendum was over, the Government naturally wanted to use figures from the campaign to justify its position. So statistics originated by BUS were transferred to OMNI: a great piece of creative synergy. The data passed effortlessly through what we call our Berlin Wall (like a Chinese wall, except that it doesn’t exist).

‘So it’s all onwards and upwards at the moment. The world can never have too many statistics. One push of the button and I can confer scientific respectability on any amount of bollocks.’