Wednesday 3 October 2012

BBC And Guardian Played Like Fools On Minimum Alcohol Pricing

This is a message from the highly irresponsible blogosphere.

You know, the one that Andrew Marr once portrayed thus.
"A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed, young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people. 
"OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night. 
"It is fantastic at times but it is not going to replace journalism."
Perhaps he is referring to top quality journalism like this in the Guardian, for example.
The lives of 5,000 older English people who drink too much could be saved each year if the government sets its promised minimum price for alcohol at 50p a unit, new research suggests. 
Academics at Sheffield University produced the estimate for next Monday's edition of the BBC's Panorama programme, which highlights the growing problem of over-65s drinking dangerously.
It repeated, without question, the conclusions of the BBC who - in turn - repeated, without question, the 'evidence' provided to them by the University of Sheffield. Apparently, over 10 years, 50,000 old people would be miraculously saved by a 50p minimum alcohol price.

All very well, except that the claims were disastrously wrong, as admitted this week.
Correction 28 September 2012: The main figure in this story has been amended from 50,000 to 11,500 after it emerged that there had been an error in the calculations carried out for Panorama by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield.
Wow! That's a pretty significant cock-up, isn't it? Well, yes. So much so, that the BBC iPlayer edition of the show has been pulled until it can be re-recorded!
Correction: 28 September, 2012: 
The School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield has confirmed to Panorama that unfortunately, due to human error, figures they produced specifically for the programme Old, Drunk and Disorderly?  broadcast on 10th September 2012 were incorrect.  The figures are in fact 4-5 times lower than those originally given to Panorama. The University emphasised the human error was wholly on their part and has apologised unreservedly to the BBC. The programme has been temporarily removed from iPlayer and is being re-edited to reflect the correct figures.
It's hardly surprising really. The information is in the public domain for any inquisitive journalist to find if they could be bothered to look. Snowdon expressed some doubts before it was even aired.
Forgive me if I sound jaded when I discuss these people's crystal balls, but it was only six months ago that a 50p minimum price was predicted to save 2,000 lives a year across the entire population. The government-funded sock puppet website says that it will save exactly 1,000 lives, again across the entire population. Suddenly saving 5,000 lives only amongst pensioners seems to be upping the ante somewhat, no? (The BBC is running the same story, but incorporates the old trick of multiplying the figure over a decade, hence 'Minimum alcohol price 'would save 50,000 pensioners'.)
This, while our respected (pfft) mainstream media didn't even so much as raise a sceptical eyebrow.

In fact, it was much worse than that. Sheffield University's self-aggrandising page is quite clear about how many lives are to be miraculously 'saved' by minimum pricing.
Various public health groups have recommended a minimum unit price of 50 pence. Our model suggests that, in England, this would [lead to]: 
3,060 fewer deaths and 97,700 fewer hospital admissions over ten years.
It's quite incredible that Panorama's fact-checkers are so shoddy that they didn't see that claiming 50,000 old people dying is quite laughable when their source has previously declared - experts as they are - only 3,060 in the entire population! And even that is more than debatable if you have read their rent-seeking reasoning (in fact, their latest report contains a different fantasy figure of 2,941).

OK, let's take that as being a mistake. That they intended to claim 3,060 per year, not over ten years. It is still nowhere near the 50,000 ten year figure that Panorama, the Guardian, and others took as read. It would also be a second cock-up from Sheffield University if that were the case. That's quite a large helping of incompetence right there, I'd argue (oh yeah, and did I mention their research was funded out of your taxes? But you kinda feared that, didn't you?).

In fact, the BBC's retraction came about not because of Andrew Marr's lauded journalists, nor from anyone who follows them. It was, instead, a regular jewel-robbing reader of this blog and others in the same vein who refused to let them get away with such blatant inaccuracies and challenged them on it. Successfully.

OK, so journalists are poor, over-worked creatures these days yada yada, and it's not their fault, we are constantly told. However, there is one profession which has no excuse whatsoever for being pathetically credulous fools.
The UK government is to back the Scottish government when its minimum alcohol pricing legislation is challenged in the courts. 
Advocate General, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, has said UK ministers will not "sit on the sidelines". 
He is due to discuss the UK government's position on minimum pricing at a legal conference in Edinburgh later this week.
Who do they trust for the information which underpins this newly-found confidence in tackling the EU?
Research by Sheffield University has indicated that setting the minimum price at 50p would lead to 60 fewer deaths, 1,600 fewer hospital admissions and 3,500 fewer crimes in its first year.

The same government who follow the EU line on every diktat laid down in front of them; the same government who willingly throw your freedoms away once Brussels barks an order; will jump up and down indignantly when told minimum pricing is wrong and should be abandoned.

Makes you feel so proud of your elected arseholes doesn't it? The only way they can be cajoled into resisting the unelected EU is when it is to further interfere in your life and make your freedom of choice more expensive based on the say-so of - let's face it - a University with the rigour and double-checking acumen of Mr Bean.

How safe do you feel that idiots like this are in charge of your defence, policing and the education of your kids?

I wonder where Marr's indispensable and questioning journalists were when all this crap was pumped out on prime time BBC1? Perhaps they'd have done a better job if they were in their mother's basement doing what others have done more effectively and for free.

Epilogue: Will the Guardian admit they have been misled and give the same prominence to an article rubbishing their previous one like the BBC have failed to do? Well, what do you think?

Lies and boots yet again.

UPDATE: At Spiked, Snowdon reminds us that this 300% error is reminiscent of the BMA's quietly withdrawn "23 times" fabrication of November last year. Do go have a read.

UPDATE 2: My attention has been drawn to a well-written article by Stephen McGowan from earlier this year.
The Government seeks to implement policy based on facts; but the Sheffield research is not positivism or empiricism, it is speculation.  It is also a re-hash of their previous statements commissioned by Westminster and published in December 2008. I have some difficulty with Holyrood’s decision to instruct Sheffield University when they already knew what the results were going to be. 
The results of the Sheffield research are, after all, a totem carved from conjecture and guesswork (something which the authors of the report have themselves point out).
Quite. You can read the rest here.

UPDATE 3: Do see also Pub Curmudgeon's viewpoint here.

UPDATE 4: Simon Cooke comments that "hundreds of thousands watched a Panorama documentary founded on a lie", and Liberal Vision point out how policy-driven research is perverting public health credibility.


Mark.S said...

I am looking forward to the next time I hear some twerp mention the 5,000 per year figure, I'm sure it won't be long.
Oh and well done to Mr angry in a basement .

nisakiman said...

The problem, DP, is that the damage has been done. The 50,000 figure has entered the public consciousness, and the retraction won't impinge at all, taking a figurative two column inches on the back page.

Couple that with the gullibility of the British public when it comes to "experts"...John Cleese had it spot on with his Basil Fawlty portrayal of fawning sycophancy whenever a "Doctor" showed up.

I fear this is yet another pointless, damaging incursion into the private lives of people, like plain packaging, that will be another victory for the joyless ones. As long as we have brain-dead idiots in government, they will continue to drive policy.

ivandenisovich said...

I sincerely doubt that a single life will be "saved" by what is an exercise in gesture politics based on poorly researched speculation.

The BBC should apologise publicly for its Panorama propaganda wing and perhaps "redeploy" most of its appalling online news team. Hardly a day goes by without them pushing minimum pricing or telling the population that it is all our own fault that we are sick. They are worse than the Daily Mail and that really takes some doing.

As for the utterly corrupt DoH, perhaps if they concentrated on actually running our hospitals instead of bunging money at social scientists to give credibility to illiberal policies, we might have a better health service.

In other news the DfT just wasted 40 million screwing up a rail franchise bid so perhaps it isn't just the DoH.

ivandenisovich said...

Below is the top rated comment on the BBC article that you first link to. It says it all really. It is a shame that the BBC don't listen to their customers and continue to churn out public health propaganda at every opportunity. Of course they don't have to listen do they thanks to the"unique way that they are funded"

7th September 2012 - 10:29
Can we please just let people live their lives in the way they see fit. Rather than having to control absolutely everything.

We work hard all week, what is so wrong with having a drink on an evening or a weekend in the privacy of our own homes?

And if people die earlier it's their choice and it saves the NHS money.

Seriously just leave us alone.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

True. You see the same in every comments section of every political stripe, even the Guardian. Yet MPs and the rest of the Westminster bubble completely ignore the majority who just want them to leave us alone. Politics is perverse as well as corrupt.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

The whole system is appalling. Private Eye reported a while back on Margaret Beckett wasting £284m (?) on a computer system which was never built, yet it barely made a ripple in the rest of the press.

Panorama at least had the decency to look at the question being asked and look into it. Unlike their colleague Michelle Roberts, of course.

Dick_Puddlecote said...

I make you right on all counts, N. Except that I reckon the public are slowly waking up to the bleatings of these charlatans, as Ivan mentioned

Dick_Puddlecote said...

Ta. :)

You know, don't you, that when you correct them, they will refuse to believe you. If they're that gullible already that they regurgitate what they've seen on TV without scepticism or research, they're probably past saving.

ivandenisovich said...

And they wonder why people are no longer engaged by politics. The answer is staring them in the face when they brush their teeth. The vast majority of us want less government, less civil servants, less self appointed experts, less statistical bullshit and more common sense

Tony said...

The BBC is a total joke, it's such a clear propaganda website that the only thing you can trust are the football results, the "news" section is total crap, just look at their Syria propaganda for Christs sake.

The real reason they mock blogs all the time is because 99% of the time the blogs will write more truth. The mainstream medias days are numbered and good riddance all I can say.

Bart said...

I really don't understand what their lives will be 'saved' for...

What!! said...

Employment discrimination against smokers was highlighted in
a comment a few threads ago. Henry Ford figured in such discrimination early
last century. Interestingly, the Henry Ford Health System in America
has just instituted a “no smoker” employment (including a “smell” test) policy.
See Seigel’s new blog and comments for more detail.

What!! said...

Employment discrimination against smokers was highlighted in a comment a few threads ago. Henry Ford figured in such discrimination early last century. Interestingly, the Henry Ford Health System in America has just instituted a “no smoker” employment (including a “smell” test) policy. See Seigel’s new blog and comments for more detail.

Michael McFadden said...

Whoops! Guess that's me! Bald, young, and angry. Hmm... they left out fat.


James Pickett said...

Yes but, that maths, and that's really hard, especially for the arts and humanities lot that fills the Grauniad and BBC. They chose their subjects to get out of doing maths, so it's not their fault if they can't put the decimal point in the right place, let alone understand percentages and stats. Mind you, you'd think Sheffield Uni might have had a passing acquaintance...

James Pickett said...

"after it emerged that there had been an error"

No chance of them reporting how it emerged, I suppose? [hollow laugh]

SteveW said...

Further to this I've had a bit of back and forth with Sheffield ScHARR - they've amended their website to correct one obvious error, however, they're now deflecting further attention away from themselves and on to one or both of the Department of Health and/or The Home Office.

This weekend's fun and games will most likely be constructing a tripartite FOI request to see what else can be unearthed. Also, a special bonus FOI for ScHARR to get some 'background' emails - partly because I'm a nosey bastard, partly because I know it will make them squirm a bit.

I did have a similar one with DoH a while back where the internal emails they sent me were basically a discussion between the front line bloke and his boss writing me off as some sort of frothy mouthed lunatic utterly unqualified to comment. After a brief comparison of our respective qualifications they did offer a particularly mealy mouthed apology :-)

Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose...