Thursday 23 October 2014

Good cop/bad cop - how the BBC frames the debate on sugar

The BBC wants to know when if you've stopped beating your wife.

Last night the BBC broadcast Trust Me, I'm a Doctor. It featured a segment about sugar that was a nice example of how the media can narrow the terms of a debate while pretending to be neutral.

It started by showing some of the hysterical claims about sugar being 'the new tobacco' before declaring that it would be presenting the views of two scientists who held wildly differing opinions about the subject.

"To find out more, I've invited a couple of leading experts whose research has led to contradictory headlines..."

One of these experts was Simon Capewell of the anti-sugar pressure group Action on Sugar.

The other was Mike Rayner from the, er, anti-sugar pressure group Action on Sugar.

Only Capewell (bad cop) was introduced as being from Action on Sugar and it is simply not true that their research "has led to contradictory headlines". Both of them think that sugar is the leading cause of obesity, both of them think that the government should intervene in people's diets and both of them want sugar taxes. Rayner's research focuses on what a jolly good thing it would be if we taxed sugar and fizzy drinks. Capewell entirely agrees.

The main differences between the two is that Rayner (good cop) believes he is doing the Lord's work and he would like to broaden food taxation to go beyond sugar to deal with the whole diet:

"I don't care whether it's hot or cold, whether you got it from a takeaway or a shop - I'd like us to tax all unhealthy foods from butter to biscuits."

You can watch extended interviews of Capewell and Rayner by clicking on the links. Rayner certainly comes across as the saner and more thoughtful of the pair—and so he is—but this is because he rejects the garbage about sugar being addictive and/or toxic (which Capewell virtually admits he has to spout in order to get the attention of politicians).

Only in the fruity world of 'public health' can this be considered a meaningful difference. From Rayner's perspective, it is more reasonable to tax calories as calories rather than demonise sugar per se, but that is still a patently extreme point of view. And yet this guy is being wheeled out as the voice of reason!

I won't fisk Capewell's interview, although I am tempted. I hope that anyone who watches it will spot his duplicity and evasiveness when answering questions, as well as the eagerness of the presenter to help him out (to a laughable degree when the topic turns to addiction). Rayner got a slightly rougher ride, but there was no acknowledgement of the role of physical inactivity in causing obesity, nor was there any recognition of the fact that per capita sugar consumption is the same today as it was a hundred years ago. Both sides agree that sugar is the villain and the government needs to act, preferably with taxes.

By only showing us the devil and the deep blue sea, the BBC managed to make Rayner look like the good cop and Capewell the bad cop, but it was like a debate between a Marxist-Leninist and a Maoist, or a Hayekian against a Friedmanite. The shades of disagreement might seem significant to those who have already picked a side, but they are meaningless for those who want to see the bigger picture.

The effect—and, I assume, the intention—was to shift the debate from 'what's going on?' to 'what shall the government do?'


Chris Oakley said...

I regard neither of these two as remotely trustworthy, or especially sane for that matter. What was the BBC thinking?

DP said...

Dear Mr Snowdon

" ... - I'd like us to tax all unhealthy foods from butter to biscuits."

No food is unhealthy.

No food is unhealthiest of all.


Anonymous said...

There was a nice discussion on 5Live this morning about parents taking their children out of school for holidays or special events.

The debate was, essentially, about whether it's the secretary of state who should decide what's best for your kids, or whether it's the headmaster.

Ondřej Palkovský said...

I just saw the interview - when speaking about the 'vested interest' - it would be nice, if someone asked him something like 'I am the vested interest - you are trying to make sugar more expensive for me and I don't like it'...

Chris, he mentioned some study in the interview regarding problems of sugar vs. physical exercise. Do you have an idea which study did he refer to - as it somehow seems to me quite unlikely he would interpret it correctly ...

Christopher Snowdon said...

I don't know which study he's talking about, I'm afraid.

PhilT said...

To demonstrate sugar is harmful requires (say) five RCTs substituting say 50 g/day sugar for other carbohydrate in a diet.

InAction on Sugar would do better sorting out some actual science to make their case.