|Our old friends, the media's favourite 'binge drinking' shots. One of these is staged by an actor. The other two show what might well be moderate alcohol consumption.|
The other day we had yet another scare - the third in a week - when the coalition of anti-alcohol groups known as the Alcohol Health Alliance wrote an open letter to George Osborne warning him not to abolish the Duty Escalator, as this would lead to an increase in the £21 billion cost of alcohol to society, which far outstrips the £10billion raised by duty on booze.
While no newspaper challenged this as far as I can see, Christopher Snowdon did an excellent takedown on it, all the more effective for being so dispassionate. Chris, along with Phil Mellows and Paul Chase, are often quicker off the mark than I am these days, and have a surer grasp of the sometimes complicated stats that make it so easy for temperance groups to lie to us. Add all three to your blog roll.
So I think Chris has this latest one covered - though it does anger me that I took apart the £21 billion claim four years ago and it's still being quoted as fact.
It struck me that rather than simply repeat what Chris said in an angrier fashion, it might be more useful for me at this point to share some of the tips I've learned over the years for reading through these claims in the first place. Most of them don't require you to do any extra reading, but do arm you with the healthy scepticism you need to read almost anything written about alcohol in the national press these days. (Many of them are also quite useful for any article on benefit scroungers, immigrants, urban foxes, or any other issue the Daily Mail is seeking to create a moral panic over.)
So here we go: seven questions to ask yourself when trying to work out if an article on drink is trying to mislead you:
1. Does the piece focus on specific examples rather than overall trends?
The common, time-honoured tactic of papers like The Sun and the Daily Mail is to take isolated cases and make them appear to be the norm. It's extraordinarily effective: this North London muslim cleric is preaching hate speech against the west; this family of asylum seekers cheated the system; this family on benefits gets £30k a year and says they will never get a job... run two or three stories like this, and we start to believe they're all at it. Almost always, in each case, any data available shows that these are random, isolated examples and are not reflective of the bigger picture, yet we start to believe they are.
Using personal examples to bring a statistical story to life is good journalism. Using isolated examples to imply a trend when there is no data to suggest such a trend exists is not.
When the Daily Mail goes out to find pictures of drunken excess on New Year's Eve, it will find them, because it knows where to look for them, and goes there, then pretends they are showing something typical of everywhere. They don't reveal how hard they had to look, or how selective their choice of pictures had to be.
(These stories are close relations to the Express' 'Global warming must be rubbish because it's snowing outside my house,' and the Guardian-style 'Setting up your own online ethnic jewellery business must be THE trend of 2014 because two of my friends from uni are doing it'.)
2. Has new research been published or is there any other genuine hook for the story?
New figures, such as the regular new studies that show moderate drinkers live longer, or that alcohol sales have declined again, are newsworthy because they are new. If there are none in the story, then its newsworthiness must be questioned. There was nothing new in yesterday's letter to George Osborne. In fact the data it relied on is a decade old. I often have positive stories about beer and pubs rejected because they have no news hook. The same criterion seems not to apply to stories scaring people about alcohol.
3. If there are numbers, what is their source and how recent are they?
If the facts don't fit, anti-alcohol groups have a habit of simply making them up. Last January, for example, Alcohol Concern launched its Dry January blitz with some sensational stats claiming 40% of daytime and 60% of nighttime hospital admissions were caused by alcohol. They provided no source for these figures, and ignored requests to do so. Of course their claims were still reported as fact, even though NHS figures show nothing of the kind. Look for stats compiled by the NHS and by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), which present the most accurate guess at what's happening to our behaviour and, with the exception of liver disease, show long term, consistent decline in just about every measure of alcohol consumption and alcohol related harm.
Also, check how recent the data is, and where it's from. The estimated £21 billion cost of alcohol to society is, on top of all its other flaws, based on a cabinet office report that is now 10 years old and therefore reflects higher levels of consumption, and drinking patterns as they were before the 2005 licensing act came into force. The much referred to 'Sheffield Study', on which the whole case for Minimum Unit Pricing is based, relies heavily on research carried out between 2002 and 2009 in two Canadian provinces - Ontario and British Columbia - where the availability and sale of alcohol is state controlled and operates entirely differently from the UK, and therefore is limited in its suitability as a comparison to the situation here.
As the problem with alcohol continues to recede, there's an emerging trend to quote old data even when newer data shows the problem is in decline. In this example, Alcohol Concern knowingly and deliberately used out-of-date figures about under-age drinking that had been superseded by more recent figures that showed a marked decline in the problem. This led to newspaper headlines about 'soaring' alcohol abuse when the very data this claim was based upon showed it was actually declining.
This last example also illustrates a more popular method of misrepresenting data. Beware claims such as 'Worry as over 45s now drink more than students'. This could be due to over 45s drinking more, or it could be due to students drinking less. If it is because over 45s are drinking more, you can guarantee the story will talk about a 'shocking rise' in figures that are 'soaring'. If such an increase is not specified and the number is presented as a snapshot with no context over time, you can pretty much guarantee that the figure, whatever it is, and however shocking it might seem, is actually in decline over time, and that's why they have not told you what the trend is.
4. Who wrote the piece and what is their interest?
As a Guardian reader, I get upset when a paper I generally trust (go on, take the piss here if you really need to) suddenly turns into the Daily Mail. On closer inspection, many of these articles are written by a 'health editor', who probably therefore has a different agenda and a different set of close contacts than a news reporter would (just as, to be fair, a business editor would have closer links with industry.) In articles such as this one, Guardian health writers consistently attack 'the powerful alcohol industry' for lobbying against Minimum Unit Pricing, when the facts are that large portions of the beer world - including CAMRA, many pub operators, Greene King, Tennents, the All Party Parliamentary Beer Group and the supposedly irresponsible (hint: they're not irresponsible) Brew Dog were all publicly and loudly in favour of Minimum Pricing. At one stage the chief executives of twelve pub groups, brewers and night club chains wrote an open letter to David Cameron demanding he introduce minimum pricing. Yet the article above illustrates claims about the power of 'the alcohol lobby' killing MUP with a picture of beer. Whether you agree with these pro-MUP brewers and retailers or not, articles that repeatedly accuse the government of dancing to the tune of the drinks industry when the government is in fact acting against the wishes of a significant chunk of that industry are grossly inaccurate. That inaccuracy is borne out of the bias (or sometimes plain laziness) of the author.
5. Are the 'experts' being quoted really experts in what they're talking about?
When I'm ill I go to my doctor and I trust completely what she tells me about my health. If she were to tell me that alcohol had damaged my liver, I would believe her, especially if she referred me to a liver specialist who told me the same.
But if my doctor were to say, "You know what? If you put a beer logo on a football shirt, that will make ten year old fans of that football club want to drink that beer," I would say, "Well that's your opinion, but you're hardly an expert in that area, so there is no way you can assert that as fact with no research to back up your opinion."
That's not how it works in public though. The 2009 Alcohol Select Committee report chose to believe a representative of the British Medical Association's claims about the effect of alcohol advertising on children despite an independent report from people who were qualified in this area (unlike, say, a medical doctor) casting severe doubts on both the methodology and conclusions of the doctor's claims. There are doctors and doctors. Some doctors, for whatever reason, have a personal passion against alcohol, and because they are doctors, their personal opinions are quoted as fact. When a doctor says that alcohol advertising deliberately targets kids, that doctor has nothing in his training that qualifies him better than anyone else to make this assertion. And I know that that doctor has never had an ad banned or a script rejected, like I had on many occasions in my advertising days, on the mere possibility that it just might appeal to children, even when there is no evidence that it does, when it contravenes neither the spirit nor letter of the strict advertising guidelines on this issue, and when there has been no complaint received that it does appeal to kids.
6. Are the claims being made by the protagonist countered or challenged in any way?
Use of language is an immediate giveaway as to whether the piece is impartial or not. Here's a classic: Minimum pricing would save 860 lives a year, study finds. Not 'study claims', but 'study finds'. The headline tells you all you need to know: here is a press release from an anti-alcohol organisation that has been accepted as incontrovertible fact by the (health) journalist writing the story.
Moving beyond the choice of words used, the people quoted in the piece prove clear bias and a total lack of impartiality. We hear from the Alcohol Health Alliance, the lead author of the study, and of course professor Ian Gilmore. These three anti-alcohol voices are not balanced by one comment or contribution from the other side of the debate, and there is none offered by the journalist herself.
Once again, I'm not saying there is no alcohol problem. If you see an article where new data from an impartial source shows soaring alcohol problems, reported as news, then fair enough. But such articles are increasingly rare. As the true scale of our drinking problem continues to recede, all the tactics above are being used on an increasingly frequent basis to hide this truth from us. Next time you see a scare story on booze, give this checklist a try.