In the 40-plus years I have worked as a journalist, I never wrote anything I knew to be an actual lie. I’ll admit, though, that, very rarely, I span a story to leave the reader with an impression that, while not actively untrue, did not present a totally balanced narrative: generally because the balanced narrative was so dull no one would have read it.
But I certainly worked with news editors from the “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good front-page splash” school of journalism: men (no women) who sent their reporters out with a clear brief on the story they were expected to bring back, and who would erupt with sweary rage if the reporter returned to say, actually, very sorry, the facts didn’t support the news editor’s wished-for narrative at all.
Thus I recognised the report by Zoë Beaty, “The real story behind the ‘drunk women’ headlines“, in which she details how, when she worked as a stringer in the North of England, news editors from London papers would ring her up and order a report on women drinking on New Year’s Eve:
“We were asked to ‘find the woman, crawling on the pavement with vomit-flecked hair’ (a line which has always stayed with me). They wanted fights. They wanted bodily fluids. They wanted short skirts and high heels – anything that fitted the ‘scantily clad’ caption they’d already written.”
Of course, Beaty and her photographer colleague would tour the night-time city centres, and discover that the facts did not at all fit the narrative the news editors demanded.
“Let me tell you, those stories are not easy to find. The spread of stories each year, from the same towns, the same areas, the same working briefs sent down from the same papers, make ‘booze Britain’ look alive and kicking. But, while there’s no denying that there is a boozy culture in Britain (upheld and esteemed when it’s white middle-class blokes propping up the bar) – and alcoholism is no joke – actually, the nights I was sent out on these jobs were intensely dull. It took forever. We walked the streets for hours, around and around. We saw one fight, eventually, at around 4am and it was over in a matter of seconds – hardly the fractured, violent streets full of staggering youths you’re expected to buy into.”
Still the stories get repeated: my personal theory is that middle-aged male news editors get a secret sexual kick seeing stories about, and pictures of, young women in revealing clothing out of control and vulnerable through drink, hence the popularity of pictures like this one below, taken in Bristol in 2010, which has subsequerntly appeared in publications as far away as Poland to illustrate stories on binge drinking:
But if you think this making-the-facts-up-to-fit-the-story policy is at all new, that we have only recently, after Brexit and Trump, shifted into a “post-truth” world, let me quote you George Orwell, writing 75 years ago about his experiences as a fighter for the Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War:
“Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie.”
Newspapers, news suppliers, have had an agenda since the Mercurius Civicus and the Mercurius Aulicus fired inky broadsides on behalf of the Roundheads and the Royalists respectively in the early 1640s. In fact, reporting the news is always going to be biased, because the act of “curating” – choosing what goes in and what has to be left out for reasons of space and time – is inevitably going to mean stuff someone thinks is important will be left out.
Worse than active bias, though, is the journalist’s requirement for drama: we want you to read us, and we know you like to be thrilled/shocked/stirred. What this results in is a bias towards the shocking rather than the true. If someone comes along with a story that is thrilling/shocking/disturbing/scary, it is likely not to be interrogated too hard before being slapped into print/on the web. Smart operators know this, and among those skilled in exploiting the media’s love of a good shocker are the neo-prohibitionists, the Institute of Alcohol Studies – which is ultimately descended from the UK Alliance for the Suppression of the Traffic of All Intoxicating Liquors – and its fellows. They bend the facts, they publish half-truths and quarter-truths, they spin all the figures to put the worst possible impact on them, and newspapers report what they say without questioning it because the stories may not be true, but they are shocking and disturbing and they give readers that little electric thrill of horror at how terrible the world is – even if it’s not, really. For example, it was reported that 92,220 alcohol-related hospital admissions of children and young people under 18 were made between 2002 and 2009, or 36 under-18s a day. Your mental picture, possibly, is 36 totally pissed teens in one room. But there are around 180 “major” A&E departments in England, so even if all those 92,220 little drunks went into hospital via A&E, that works out at each A&E seeing an under-18 with a critical alcohol problem once every five days: a figure that sounds rather less worrying.
The neo-prohibitionists produce a regular drip-drip of misinformation, the latest being a report that hit the news yesterday claiming that current drinks industry marketing practices are encouraging young people to drink. In the UK, head wowser Professor Sir Ian Gilmour, chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, declared that “We all know [my emphasis] that alcohol marketing contains content and messages that appeal to children and that due to exposure to this advertising children drink more and start drinking at an early age.” His solution is a “comprehensive ban” on alcohol advertising worldwide. But Gilmour’s “we all know” is an actual lie. As The Guardian (not always the first to declare a neo-prohib’s underwear is ablaze) pointed out, the most recent figures show levels of youth drinking in the UK are the lowest on record. In the past decade, the proportion of children aged 11-15 who have had an alcoholic drink has fallen by 38pc, while under 18 alcohol-specific hospital admissions have fallen by 46pc since 2008.
This is not just a UK phenomenon: levels of teen drinking in the United States are at their lowest since figures first started being gathered 25 years ago, and under-age drinking is also falling in Australia and New Zealand. The leader of the latest study on drink advertising and the young, Dr David Jernigan, of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States, declared: “Exposure to alcohol marketing among youth is linked to more underage youth drinking and, in particular, binge drinking.” But in the UK the proportion of young adults aged 16 to 24 binge drinking fell by more than a third between 2005 and 2013, from 29pc to 18pc, while the proportion of teetotal young adults rose by over 40pc, to around 27pc of the total, over the same period. The proportion of 11-15 year olds who have never had a drink rose from 39 per cent in 2002 to 61 per cent in 2013. So exposure to alcohol advertising seems to be having the opposite effect to that claimed by Gilmour and Jernigan.
The best way to counter this neo-prohib “post-truth” spinning is to play whack-a-mole with the neo-prohibitionists’ claims: every time they repeat another exaggeration, or make another unfounded claim, hit them with the hard stick of truth. Here, then, is your handy cut-out-and-keep instant rebuttal guide to countering neo-prohibitionist lies (compiled largely from facts gathered from Christopher Snowdon’s Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog: I disagree with much of his politics, but on the neo-prohibitionists he is extremely sound, and an excellent source of material):
“Britain is in the midst of a booze epidemic”
- Per capita alcohol consumption has dropped by a fifth since 2004
- Alcohol-related deaths have fallen by 7pc since 2008
- Alcohol-related violent crime has fallen by 40pc since 2007
- Drink driving related accidents fell by 45pc between 2003 and 2014 and are now at the lowest rate on record
- The proportion of 45 to 64-year-old males who drink alcohol on five or more days a week has fallen by 29pc since 2005
“There is no safe level of drinking”
I once covered a story about a young wife whose husband brought her a moped. The first time she rode it, in the cul-de-sac where she lived, she accelerated straight into a brick wall, cracked her skull and died. We can thus conclude there is no safe level of moped riding: once is enough to kill you.
But this “no safe level” claim about alcohol, based on the idea that the tiny, tiny risk of alcohol-caused cancer is there regardless of intake, deliberately ignores the much stronger proven health benefits of moderate drinking. More than a hundred studies have shown that moderate drinking brings a 25pc to 40pc reduction in risk of death from all cardiovascular causes. Heart disease risk is at its lowest for men drinking around four units a day, or two 500ml bottles of 4pc abv beer (for women the optimal level is lower). And heart disease, incidentally, kills more people than all the “alcohol-related” cancers combined. Moderate drinking is also associated with a 30pc lower risk of risk of type-2 diabetes, and of ischaemic stroke.
Moderate drinkers have less osteoporosis and a lower risk of fractures in the elderly compared to abstainers. Light to moderate drinking is associated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia in older people. What is more, the risks for many diseases have been found to be lower among frequent drinkers, including daily drinkers, than those reporting less frequent drinking. In the United States, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which says men can safely drink up to 25 units a week, almost two thirds more than current UK guidelines, estimates that 26,000 deaths a year are prevented by moderate alcohol consumption thanks to reduced risk from heart disease, diabetes and stroke, the equivalent of 5,000 deaths a year in the UK. So yes, there IS a safe level for drinking.
“Alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost the UK taxpayer £21 billion a year”
Nonsense. This figure first appeared in 2003 in a publication by an economist called Dr Rannia Leontarid, from something called the Cabinet Strategy Unit, it actually applied to England only, and should be slapped down whenever and wherever it appears. Those alleged “costs to the nation” include an estimated £4.7bn of “emotional impact costs of victims of crime”, £7.3bn for “loss of output due to absenteeism, reduced output and premature death” and “lost productive output of victims”, and £1.5bn for “costs in anticipation of crime (alarms etc)”: £13.5bn – almost two thirds of the total – that can basically be described as “sums we made up and bunged in to make the total sound high”. How, for example, can you estimate “emotional impact costs”? Or lost output because someone has a hangover? In addition, of the £2.7bn alcohol harm is supposed to cost the NHS, and the sums it is supposed to cost the criminal justice system, there is no analysis of how much of this is sunk costs on the supply of doctors, nurses, ambulances and so on that would have to be paid for anyway, no analysis of how many jobs would vanish, putting people out of work, if “alcohol-related harm” disappeared, and no analysis of how much is saved in everything from bus passes to pensions to subsidised housing through people dying early. For more, see here.
“We are drinking 42 per cent more than we did in 1980”
A classic example of how to lie by telling only half the truth: shamefully (though unsurprisingly) this untrue claim was a Daily Mail headline late last year. In 1986/87 431 million litres of alcohol were sold. Sales hit 567 million litres in 2008. But thanks to an ever-rising population, sales per head show a very different tale:
1980: 9.4 litres
1990: 9.8 litres
2000: 10.4 litres
2010: 10.1 litres
2013: 9.4 litres
And the figure is still falling. So no, today we are, as individuals, drinking less than we did in 1980. See here for more.
“Three in four people in A&E at weekends are there because of alcohol”
Two lies in one sentence, found in stories in national newspapers at the end of 2015. The story sprang out of a study of A&E admissions in Newcastle upon Tyne published in a journal called Emergency Medicine, which actually found that alleged “alcohol-related attendances” make up less than 20 per cent of the weekend total, and only topped 70pc around 3am, when there were comparatively few people in A&E anyway: and these weren’t necessarily “alcohol-related attendees”, merely people who “tested positive for alcohol ingestion”. I’d suggest most people test positive for alcohol ingestion at 3am on a weekend morning. More here.
“Alcohol is now 60% more affordable today than it was in 1980”
Another lie, based on the fact that disposable incomes have risen (and ignoring the fact that we now buy much more stuff – smartphones, computers – and other costs are much higher – housing, travel). In fact, since 1980, the price of alcohol in the UK has gone up by 23pc more than the rate of inflation, and the real price of drinking has thus increased.
“Minimum pricing cuts alcohol-related deaths and hospital admissions”
This claim is based on a study of British Columbia, in Canada. The neo-prohibs claim that “a 10pc increase in average minimum price for all alcoholic beverages in British Columbia was associated with a 32pc reduction in wholly alcohol-related deaths within nine months, a 9pc reduction in acute alcohol-related hospital admissions and a 9pc reduction in chronic alcohol-related hospital admissions two to three years after the policy was implemented.” But in fact alcohol-related deaths did not fall and alcohol-related hospital admissions continued to rise. And to quote Christopher Snowdon: “The alcohol-related mortality rate in British Columbia, where they’ve had minimum pricing and a state-run off-licence monopoly for years, is 24 per 100,000, whereas in the UK, where we supposedly have a boozing epidemic, it is barely half of that: 13 per 100,000.” More here, with a particularly good look at the debate from an Irish point of view here.
“More than 135,000 UK drinkers will die of cancer caused by alcohol by the year 2035”
This is the “big figure” lie: 135,000, the population of Gloucester, sounds a huge number. But that figure of alcohol cancer deaths is spread over 20 years – so it is actually 6,732 a year. There are 7,674 GP practices in England alone. Therefore each GP surgery is likely to see fewer than one patient a year die from cancer caused by alcohol. Any figures you see from the neo-prohibs will always be spun to look as bad as possible – deaths quoted over 10 or 20 years, for example, risks given as relative rather than absolute, so that the risk of a particular disease “doubles” if you drink, but further digging will reveal that “doubling” is from, say, a one in 5,000 chance to a one in 2,500 chance; so in reality from very very very small to just very very small.
Overall, then, when you read anything from any anti-alcohol campaigner, the best policy is to remember what the late Times foreign correspondent Louis Heren would ask himself when interviewing a politician: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” The next step is to try to identify exactly where the lie is, and then rebut it, as loudly as possible.