Saturday 24 March 2012

Entirely a matter for you

I usually play snooker on a Friday night. Last night, however, I was preparing to go on Newsnight to talk about minimum pricing. I'd earlier spent an enjoyable hour on BBC Wales talking to the good people of the valleys about the same topic (callers were overwhelmingly against it). Newsnight suits my sleep patterns a lot better than the Today programme and I was pleased to be asked on, especially since it would involve going head-to-head with Sarah Wollaston. I was hoping to get my three main arguments across—that minimum pricing is deeply regressive, that Booze Britain is a modern moral panic and that the government has no right to dictate prices in a free market.

Soon after setting off on the train I got a text from the researcher who booked me, checking I was en route. Yes I was. All was good. Half an hour later I got another text saying they were going to have to drop me. Two hours before the show was due to go live, a replacement had been found in Eric Joyce MP.

As you can imagine, I was somewhat annoyed by the timing of this announcement, but I had some sympathy with the editorial decision. Eric Joyce is undeniably more famous than me and this was to be his first interview since leaving/being thrown out of the Labour party, and therefore a minor scoop.

But, at the risk of bearing sour grapes, I suspect that I would also be quite famous if I had head-butted a Tory MP in the House of Commons bar while out of my mind on discounted booze. And while I was prepared to go to the studio to be interviewed in person, Mr Joyce had no choice but to appear by video-link as a result of being under curfew after his conviction for common assault.

Joyce was very sound in attacking minimum pricing on the grounds that it would hit the poor hardest. He rightly called the policy "abominable". But while he made a good case, there was no getting away from the fact that 'drunken thug defends cheap booze' is not especially persuasive.

Consider, for example, where your sympathies would lie if you were an undecided voter sitting down to Newsnight and the two guests were introduced in the following way (this is a verbatim transcript of the presenters' introduction)...

"Sarah Wollaston is a GP and a Tory MP, not to mention a member of the Commons' Health Select Committee.

Eric Joyce, an MP against minimum pricing, was forced to quit the Labour Party after a drunken punch-up in the House of Commons bar. Tonight he's under curfew in his Edinburgh home."

Ooh, who to trust? I couldn't help but be reminded of Peter Cook's classic 'Entirely a Matter for You' sketch ("You may choose, if you wish, to believe the transparent tissue of odious lies which streamed on and on from his disgusting, greedy, slavering lips...")

As I got into Brighton train station, the phone rang with a researcher from Five Live asking me if I would go on at 11.15 pm to talk about alcohol. I've appeared on several Five Live shows in the past, including this late night slot, and, after the usual questions about what my views were, she said she'd call me at home at the agreed time and I would join the debate.

Since the other guests were to be a recovering alcoholic and an alcohol care worker, I was prepared to counter the inevitable sob stories by saying that policy should be based on empirical evidence, not tear-jerking anecdotes.

The call came at 11.10 pm and I listened to the recovering alcoholic's life story as I waited to be introduced. Then, after five minutes hanging on the line, I heard the voice of the producer regretfully informing me that I wouldn't be needed because there were so many calls coming in from people wishing to tell their tales of woe that there was no longer time.

I protested that I was already outnumbered by temperance folk as it was and that if I was excluded from the programme there would be no one to make the case against minimum pricing. He told me that the programme wasn't really about minimum pricing, but was a general phone-in about the "human cost of alcohol abuse". The fact that minimum pricing had been announced on the same day was, in effect, a coincidence.

I expressed some doubt about whether this was really so—why ask me on the show otherwise?—but I explained that even if it was, it must have occurred to the editor that an hour long misery memoir about people's 'booze Hell' could not fail to influence public opinion at a time when minimum pricing was the BBC's headline news story. It was, at best, an unfortunate editorial decision akin to getting women to talk about the pain and regret of terminating a pregnancy on the day the government announced a ban on abortion. (You can listen to this Victorian melodrama from 1.12 here—note the introduction).

The upshot of all this is that I will be playing snooker tonight instead. Undefeated since the start of the year and with a recent break of 35 to my name, I am a force to be reckoned with.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you re the way that the BBC have been manipulating the debate, which is deeply anti-democratic, but I disagree with you on the issue of substance of minimum alcohol pricing.

We have to look at the social and human cost of our contemporary driking culture.

The relaxation of the licensing laws and the drastic drop in the price of a lot of booze is a gigantic social experiment and the results so far have not been good.

Jay said...

Dude, that completely sucks!

Sensationalism over substance. This is why more and more of us are turning off our televisions and radios; we are not buying newspapers nor are we bothering with the on-line editions. We get our information for free from blogs and other sources. Will the new media overtake the old? I don't know, but I hope it does.

The main-stream media has no interest in being fair or objective. They are rapidly becoming relics -- dinosaurs of an era where they were the only source of information. They need to change. We should not support them until they do.

Curmudgeon said...

Reminds me of an occasion in the early 70s when the BBC got comedian Kenneth Williams on to debate trade union militancy with Clydeside communist shop steward Jimmy Reid.

fredbarboo said...


(NB: it wasn't Joyce's first interview - did one for STV on March 12:

Ivan D said...

I agree with representingthemambo that the BBC has manipulated the minimum pricing issue. Too bad you were on the receiving end of a preference for the sensational yesterday.

It is a testament to just how dishonest the media coverage on alcohol has been that the same commenter believes the exact opposite of what impartial bodies like the ONS are telling us.

Alcohol consumption in the UK is falling and had been doing so for over a decade. According to the NHS youth drinking and binge drinking are also in decline. The price of alcohol has not fallen in recent years but increased by well above inflation. It is now cheaper to buy good quality scotch in France or Germany than it is in Scotland. I frequently do.

Keep trying with the BBC Chris and enjoy the snooker

Ben said...

representingthemambo said...
"We have to look at the social and human cost of our contemporary driking culture."

Our culture? It might be yours, not mine. By generalising a problem of a very, very small minority of individuals (yes, individuals, no mass movement, no conspiracy) and elevating it to a problem of everybody. Why would you want to take part in the life of others, assume responsibility for them? Don't you have a life to live on your own?

Tomrat said...

Well done mate - you have taken the debate to such an extent that censure is the only option left to these cretins.

Enjoy snooker. For me wine and playing with my new iPad.

Anonymous said...

Anybody needs lessons on makin whiskey from across the pond...we can help. It aint the first alcohol rodeo us kentucky/tennessee boyz been in!


Frank J said...

"comedian Kenneth Williams on to debate trade union militancy with Clydeside communist shop steward Jimmy Reid."

From memory, he didn't do a bad job, though. Better than any 'modern Conservative' could do. They were invited back for a second Parkinson show.