Panorama’s addiction to pisspoor journalism

Last night’s edition of the BBC’s current-affairs show was a one-sided showcase for the anti-alcohol lobby.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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The UK government is more concerned with cosying up to the drinks industry than it is with saving people’s lives. As a result, thousands of people are dying each year because efforts to introduce effective action against problem drinking – like increasing the price of booze – are being thwarted by industry representatives who have packed a crucial advisory panel.

It’s jaw-dropping stuff, revealing a government and an alcohol industry that have a callous disregard for our health and our lives. But the accusations, made in last night’s edition of the BBC’s flagship current affairs TV show, Panorama, were utterly one-sided. Then again, since its revival in 2007, Panorama has been consistently bringing us the very best of hack journalism.

Take the opening to last night’s edition, ‘Dying for a Drink’: ‘This is Victoria, she’s 35 and has been drinking a bottle of brandy a day… Matthew is 45. Twenty pints a day left him needing a liver transplant… Brian is 32. He drank so much cheap cider, he ended up living in a cave…. They’re part of a new, younger generation of problem drinkers… Are the government doing enough to stop us drinking ourselves to death?’

Having told us more about Victoria’s case – she was downing bottles of spirits from the age of 16, apparently, and is now badly jaundiced as her liver is on the point of failure – presenter Richard Bilton informs us that cases of alcoholic liver disease have risen by 50 per cent in the past decade: ‘How did it come to this with alcoholic liver disease rising so dramatically, affecting younger and younger people? Well, experts say it’s all down to our national addiction to drink.’

So just how many people are dying from alcoholic liver disease? NHS statistics published in May this year suggest that from 2001 to 2009, the number of deaths rose from 3,236 to 4,154, while overall alcohol-related deaths rose from 5,476 to 6,584. These deaths are all terrible tragedies, thousands of lives wasted because people had become habitual, excessive drinkers. But it’s also clear that thousands of people have died in this manner every year for a long time. Alcoholism is not new, sadly.

Taking a broader view of alcohol-related deaths, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) notes: ‘The number of alcohol-related deaths in the UK has increased since the early 1990s, rising from the lowest figure of 4,023 (6.7 per 100,000 population) in 1992 to the highest of 9,031 (13.6 per 100,000) in 2008. In 2009 the number of deaths fell to 8,664 (12.8 per 100,000).’ So, while such deaths have increased markedly, now accounting for one death per 8,000 people every year, they still represent a minor cause of death for the population as a whole.

Moreover, despite the novelty of youngish people succumbing to such conditions, this is still overwhelmingly a problem for older people. The same ONS article states: ‘The highest alcohol-related death rate across the period was in men aged 55–74. In 2009, the rate for this group was 41.8 per 100,000. The lowest male rate was in those aged 15–34; the rate for this group in 2009 was 2.6 per 100,000.’ Despite the often-made suggestion that young people are drinking themselves to death, it would appear that even serious problem drinkers usually take decades to kill themselves. That’s little comfort to those who have to put up with the fallout of problem drinking on a day-to-day basis, but it does put the dangers of alcohol into some perspective.

In the programme, Bilton also suggested that about a quarter of the UK population drinks ‘too much’ while we watch very drunk people staggering around a Liverpool accident-and-emergency department, suggesting that 25 per cent of the population is drinking itself into a stupor on a regular basis. But ‘too much’ seems, according to health guidelines, to really mean ‘not a lot’: more than 21 units of alcohol per week for men and 14 units for women. That’s one pint of Stella Artois per day for men, and less than one standard glass of chardonnay per day for women (applying the sexual division of alcohol consumption used by comedian Al Murray’s chauvinist character, The Pub Landlord).

A far smaller proportion of the population – seven per cent of men, four per cent of women – are defined as ‘heavy drinkers’. Even then, this level of consumption is not necessarily problematic to health, equating to over 50 units per week (two-and-a-half pints of strong lager per day) for men and 35 units per week (a little over two glasses of white wine per day) for women. Given these low thresholds, it is a wonder that there aren’t far more people meeting the definition of ‘heavy drinkers’.

Given these statistics, Bilton’s suggestion that we have a ‘national addiction to drink’ is simply absurd. But Panorama then became a platform for a whole bunch of ‘experts’ with distinctly prohibitionist tendencies, demanding stronger government action to curb our habits. Professor Simon Capewell of Liverpool University accuses the Conservatives of pandering to the drinks industry, even before getting into government: ‘Every time effective interventions were discussed – legislation, taxation, regulation, subsidies for healthy options – there was a polite nod and then we moved on to the next item.’ The programme was dominated by the view of an array of the usual suspects all promoting the drink-is-bad line. Really, they ought to rename the programme Propaganda and have done.

When the government brings together the experts – both from industry and from the health lobby – on bodies like the Government and Partners Alcohol Working Group, the missing element is the vast majority of people for whom alcohol is an invaluable way of relaxing and a wonderful social lubricant. The obsession is with the harm done to a small minority of the population (a minority greatly expanded through the use of dubious statistics and laughable guidelines) while the pleasure derived from alcohol is simply ignored.

As writer Christopher Snowdon notes, the whole programme was based on a series of myths: that alcohol is lightly taxed (the UK has high tax rates compared to most of Europe); that alcohol consumption has skyrocketed in the past few years (it’s been falling recently and Brits are barely drinking any more than we did in 1980); and that we drink more than other comparable countries (consumption in the UK is lower than Germany, France and Ireland, and is actually almost exactly the same as the EU average).

Most of all, there was the myth that taxing all drinkers even more will have a significant impact on the small minority of people whose lives are dominated by alcohol. Higher taxes would be great news for the Treasury and a further imposition on our right to choose how much we drink, while having little or no impact on people who are alcohol addicts.

What should be cause for scandal is that a bunch of self-appointed experts from the likes of Alcohol Concern and the British Medical Association should have the ear of government, having a disproportionate say in the shaping of policy. Worse, they are so spoilt that when the current Lib-Con coalition refuses to play along with their demands for ever-greater restrictions on alcohol, prefering to guilt-trip the drinks industry into a variety of voluntary steps instead, the killjoys pick up their ball and walk away from the playground.

Bilton and Panorama have form for this kind of one-sided hackery, having given us a sermon on ‘junk’ food and children last year. Given the recent finding by the BBC Trust that Panorama had used faked footage in a film about Primark in 2008, isn’t it time the BBC did the right thing and replaced the editors of this weekly 30-minute binge of mind-rot? Or maybe the BBC thinks we have a national addiction to dross.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK). Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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