Wednesday 11 September 2013

BBC balance = 5:1

The 'let's ban alcohol advertising from sports' story (see previous post) has now been covered by the BBC. It appears in the Science/Environment section rather than the Health section, which seems weird until you see that it was written by Suzi Gage. Some readers will remember Ms. Gage from her attempt to smear a scientist on The Guardian website in January because—in her opinion—his findings were "a gift to those who would like to prevent attempts to reduce levels of smoking". The scientist crushed her in the comments and later wrote that "the headline was an affront to my professional reputation as a researcher and the post was an affront to the perceived quality of the Guardian."

Apparently these are the qualities the BBC looks for in a journalist and so Gage now writes for its Science/Environment webpages. Science reporters—as opposed to health reporters—don't generally do puff pieces for 'public health' lobbyists, but Gage has managed to crowbar this bit of policy-based evidence in. And, to be fair, she gives someone from the alcohol industry a brief right to reply...

A spokesman for the Portman Group told BBC News: "National trends around alcohol consumption are encouraging. Government figures show that fewer and fewer children are even trying alcohol and the number of adults that drink to harmful levels is also falling.

"The drinks industry is committed to responsible marketing practices in all forms to help continue these positive national trends."

This voice of reason is vastly outnumbered by an array of researchers-cum-campaigners demanding a ban. First, we hear from the study's author who goes into a diatribe about how dreadful alcohol is. The following is only a snippet...

"Alcohol causes such a large range of problems, a range of health problems from sore head the next morning to deadly liver disease.

"It also causes a really wide range of social and, with knock-on effects, economic problems. From things like people who get pregnant when they're drunk because their judgement is diminished to people who lose their family and their jobs because of alcohol," said Dr Adams.

Gage then adds her own opinion, subtly presented as fact...

Dr Adams is concerned about the amount of brand information that is presented outside traditional commercials, as this is often less noticeable, yet still has an effect of biasing people's attention towards alcohol.

Then it's the turn of a seemingly random academic from the ubiquitous University of Bath...

Dr Sally Adams (no relation) is a research psychologist specialising in alcohol studies, from the University of Bath, and was not involved in the study.

She told BBC News: "Alcohol-related cues are often processed outside of an individual's awareness and can stimulate thoughts, memories and expectations of alcohol. In turn these thoughts can lead an individual to seeking out and consuming alcohol.

"In a nutshell, alcohol-related cues can bias our thoughts and behaviours to be targeted towards alcohol and drinking."

Then we really get down to brass tacks with some overt slippery slope logic...

The authors believe their findings have implications for the current state of alcohol regulation. First author Andy Graham, a speciality registrar in Public Health, told a press conference at the British Science Festival: "We believe a similar restriction to that imposed on tobacco products may be justified."

The same theme is picked up by the last pro-ban spokesperson...

Prof Matt Field from the University of Liverpool, also uninvolved in the study, told BBC News: "Not so long ago, tobacco advertising was plastered all over racing cars and snooker venues. That has since been banned and perhaps we need to do the same for alcohol and sport, if it's a way of introducing beer to young people."

So that's five people in the article who are in favour of a ban—if you include Gage, as you should—versus one unnamed booze industry rep against. Fair and balanced?

Take note of what is being argued here, by the way. The authors want legislation because they are concerned about the references to alcohol and alcohol brand names being seen and heard, even if only briefly, because they supposedly have the "effect of biasing people's attention towards alcohol". It is far too early for them to take this logic to its natural conclusion and demand display bans and plain packaging, but be under no illusion that that is where their logic will take them.


Dick Puddlecote said...

Hideous stuff. So Gage escapes from the lukewarm kitchen of the Guardian where she might encounter challenging comments, into the safe cool conservatory of the BBC and its complete lack of debate.

I'm very disappointed, I thought she had some guts about her, but it's clear she's been inculcated into the old school debate-averse establishment.

Quite pathetic, really.

Ivan D said...

Suzi Gage is in my view a sadly typical example of the rising importance of pseudoscience in our society. She talks the talk but she is not a scientist. Science is all about objectivity and Suzi is anything but objective when it comes to her public health hobby horses. She has demonstrated her lack of this vital quality on numerous occasions.

It is interesting that she shared her science blog prize with a real scientist in the form of David Colquhon. Colquhon is an acerbic character who has a bee in his bonnet about homeopathy and other quackery. He also periodically snipes at the abuse of epidemiology by anti-meat sensationalists ( He used to smoke a pipe in his office at UCL but I am sure that sort of thing is frowned upon these days.

Colquhon was an early adopter of a very complex and delicate approach to looking at ion transport across cell membranes that involved the use of glass electrodes so fine that people were afraid to walk heavily around the laboratory for fear of breaking them and ruining the experiment.

Gage on the other hand has a degree in psychology and thinks a study that involves counting alcohol "references" in a TV show is "science" worthy of bringing to the attention of the world via the BBC. Either that or she could not resist the opportunity to promote her personal views on public health. The piece is a blatant plug but that is no longer an exceptional occurrence at the BBC.

I suspect that Gage has always planned a career in journalism so we can expect more of these "balanced" articles from her. She and Michelle Roberts should get along exceptionally well.

Jonathan Bagley said...

Well, the film Rush opens tomorrow. That should balance things out a bit.

Bucko said...

Good post. I feel I need a pint after reading that