Thursday 22 March 2012

More pro-minimum price churnalism from the BBC

The BBC's minimum pricing campaign continues to tick along. Today's story is a straightforward cut and paste from a press release issued by the National End of Life Care Programme. I've never heard of them either, but they are funded by the Department of Health so it is no surprise to find them engaging in thinly-veiled political lobbying.

Liver disease deaths reach record levels in England

Deaths from liver disease in England have reached record levels, rising by 25% in less than a decade, according to new NHS figures.

You can guess where this is leading, I'm sure, so without any further ado let's hear from the chief executive of Alcohol Con.

The chief executive of Alcohol Concern, Eric Appleby, said: "This report shows that loss of life through alcoholic liver disease remains as big a problem as ever, with a worrying tendency for those with the highest deprivation to suffer most, leading to a distinct north/south divide.

"Minimum pricing of alcohol should do much to impact on the levels of drinking that lead to alcoholic liver disease, but health service commissioners must prioritise the disease at the local level too, focusing on ways to catch problem drinking early and so help to reduce the huge social and economic cost of the current death rate."

Readers with a keen ear for the weasel word might have noticed Appleby's slightly guarded description of alcoholic liver disease as being "as big a problem as ever", rather than—as the BBC would have you believe—a problem which has reached "record levels". This is because he knows that rates of alcoholic liver disease are not at record levels. They actually fell in the last year for which we have data, as the Office for National Statistics reported.

...between 2008 and 2009, the total number of deaths directly related to alcohol consumption fell by 2.7% (from 6,768 in 2008 to 6,584 in 2009), this is the first year-on-year decrease in the series. The main contributor to the overall decrease was a 5.6% decrease in deaths from alcoholic liver disease (from 4,400 in 2008 to 4,154 in 2009).

For those who crave visual stimuli, this is how the mortality figures for alcoholic liver disease look over the last decade.

I don't wish to make too much of a one year decline, although I do wonder if the story would have been reported rather differently if this was a graph of heart attack mortality following a smoking ban that had been introduced in January 2009. The fact that mortality from this disease fell between 2008 and 2009 does not mean that everything in the garden is rosy, but several things are worth mentioning.

Firstly, whether the disease kills 3,000 or 4,000 people a year, there are 51,000,000 of us living in this country (the figures are for England). You can always say that even one death is too many, but that is just sentimental, unrealistic rhubarb. Simply put, this is not an epidemic. We are talking about a rare disease brought on by extreme, chronic drinking and a serious addiction that afflicts mercifully few of us. Minimum pricing is not going to stop these people drinking any more than extreme poverty stops the homeless drinking. The problem is much deeper than the stunted minds of the tax-and-ban neo-temperance movement will ever understand.

Secondly, even if it is true that deaths from liver disease rose between 2008 and 2009, it is clear that alcoholic liver disease cannot have been responsible for the rise, as that fell by more than 5%. If Alcohol Concern are so concerned about the overall rate reaching "record levels", perhaps they should look at the underlying causes of the non-alcohol related cases which were responsible. In slight mitigation to the BBC, they do briefly mention obesity and hepatitis, albeit next to a photo of a pint of lager.

Thirdly, and most infuriatingly, nothing in this article—which looms large on the BBC's News website as I write this—is in any way news. All it does is remind us for the umpteenth time that rates of alcoholic liver disease are higher now than they were in 2001, but without mentioning the inconvenient fact that they may have peaked in 2008.

The statistics mentioned in the article were released nearly a year ago (Straight Statistics discussed them at the time). The BBC has referred to the long-term increase in deaths from liver disease in countless news stories, including such impartial gems as 'Liver specialist: Action needed on drinking culture', 'Alcohol policy a joke, says British Liver Trust' and 'Thousands are 'at risk of alcohol death' say doctors'. There is nothing new here whatsoever. A wing of the Department of Health has repackaged some old statistics and sent them out to lazy journalists with some helpful quotes from campaigners, that's all. They are not "new NHS figures". This is no more a news story than 'Brazil won lots of World Cups' is a sports story.

The only statistic that can be considered remotely current or newsworthy is the recent decline in the rate of alcoholic liver disease and, indeed, of alcohol-related deaths generally, but that doesn't get a look in. Nor does the fact that per capita alcohol consumption has fallen dramatically in the last five years (as I reported in a recent post).

This is churnalism, plain and simple, and politically motivated churnalism at that. Day after day, the BBC report any old junk and trivia fed to them by state-funded temperance groups who are clamouring for minimum pricing.


Ivan D said...

A quick search of the BBC Website reveals that minimum pricing has featured in 80 articles over the past 6 months and over 40 in the last 2. None of these articles has really attempted to give the public an unbiased critical insight into the suggested policy and most feature sound bites from the BBCs favoured “charities”.

It is hard to argue that there is any reason for this article other than to push the BBCs preferred agenda. Alcohol Concern is a discredited disgrace and Andrew Langford is not an expert in anything in particular. The liver death numbers are old news and are designed for impact in that they contain no adjustment for population growth and no analysis. This is very poor journalism and might be construed as propaganda if we didn’t know the BBC better.

Simon Clare said...

Excellent demolition of this non-news, as ever, but I don't really buy the idea that the BBC do this as part of an "agenda".

The BBC can't implement policy, so the only mechanism by which they can benefit from regurgitating this sort of crap is the approval of their readers and listeners. You can justifiably call it pandering or churnalism - you could even say it looks like a de facto campaign on the balance of the stories that it broadcasts - but when you state that it's part of a deliberate political agenda I think you wander onto shakier ground. Rightly or wrongly, they're just trying to appeal to their perceived audience aren't they?

Christopher Snowdon said...


It can't be proven, but the way the articles are written - often with no counter-argument or opposing voice - and the sheer number of them suggest to me a deliberate attempt to push an agenda. In some cases, the BBC is the ONLY news outlet that reports these non-stories. Newspapers take an editorial line on all sorts of issues. The BBC is no different. Exactly the same thing happened in 2004-06 when any utterance by any nonentity in favour of the smoking ban was prominently reported.

Call it an agenda, or just a case of group-think, but the coverage is so one-sided that it can't be explained by giving the people what they want. In any case, the BBC is the one news outlet that doesn't need to play to the gallery. I can almost forgive tabloids for printing junk because they need to sell papers. People have higher expectations of the Beeb and yet it is as bad as any tabloid when it comes to some of its health coverage.

Mr A said...

Talking of the BBC, I've just had a reply to my complaint about the reporting of Pell's latest twaddle:

"Your comments have been referred directly to senior journalists on our health and medical team, who say they have noted the points you raise. However, they say that this was peer-reviewed research, published in a respected journal and although this is no guarantee of quality, it does show that the research passed muster with other experts. The NHS website gave details of the story and noted, "It was accurately reported by the BBC, which pointed out other factors might have influenced the results." Our online version of the story contained many caveats. Our health staff also says that although the figures for pre-term deliveries went up and down considerably, this research did look at trends over time."

They then say if I want an independent investigation I need to contact the Editorial complaints department etc.

Looks like lots of appeals to authority there. We all know how efficient peer review is when your peers are all frothing at the mouth antis, too.

Ivan D said...

BBC online news has featured 15 quotes from Alcohol Concern in 2012 to date. Alcohol Concern is notable for the abysmal quality and misleading content of reports like “One on Every Corner” and “The Price is Right”. It has no known expertise in anything whatsoever so why does the BBC feel the need to foist its output on the rest of us at the rate of one quote every 5.47 days? I would really like to believe that the BBC has no agenda but its output does seem to be increasingly dictated by pressure group press releases.

Anonymous said...

Chris, adjust for population growth and the rise disappears back to about 2003. Rate per 100,000 all deaths, male and female, no significant change. The only series in this area that makes a serious attempt to be consistent. 2003/4 looks like about the peak to me. Lots of indicators going down after that. I'd expect deaths to be one of the last to turn because you don't get liver failure overnight.