Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton
Drinking stories: how BUPA spun a tale of boozed-up Britain
As you must by now have realised, journalists don’t have time* to read original reports. Sometimes we struggle to get to the bottom of the press release. This makes us easy prey for PR spin merchants – particularly when it comes to that ever-sexy topic, drink.
Last week we had an extreme example of what can happen, the Daily Mail, of course, leading the charge.
‘Booze Britain: One in 10 admit they can't go a day without a drink’ screamed its headline. ‘1 in 10 Brits can't go a day without alcohol’ echoed the Daily Mirror.
The compulsive aspect of this, the idea that a large section of the population is out of control, is entirely speculative. I have a pint or two of nice beer pretty nearly every day not because I lack the will to resist the temptations of demon drink but because I like it. I’m making a positive, conscious decision to enhance my lifestyle.
interesting, though, is where this story came from. Mark Baird, who
enjoys the luxury of being able to do this sort of thing because he’s
paid to by Diageo, read the original report, BUPA
Health Pulse 2011. He could find no mention of alcohol.
going to take any notice of Baird, of course, since he’s drinks
industry. But he’s right. Although there is a brief reference in the
report to parents setting a bad example by drinking in front of the
kids, there’s nothing at all about the daily drinking habits of the
is a mention, though, in the accompanying press
release, which contains lots
of stuff presumably deemed not important enough to be included in the
BUPA has to highlight what it thinks are the main issues for each
country. And for Britain it’s… no, not drinking but a health crisis
among the middle-aged. The statistics on drinking can be found not in
the body of the press release at all, but in the very last footnote.
And, though not contradictory, they are different to the statistics
quoted in the media.
going on? A clue lies in the dates at the top of the press release -
September 5, more than two months before it hit the ‘news’. I
vaguely remember reports about the middle-aged health crisis, but the
headlines probably weren’t big enough for BUPA bosses who’ve got to
justify the cost of all that research.
what I’m guessing happened is that the PR department was called in and
told to have another go. They dug out some extra drinking stats and
didn’t they do that in the first place? Perhaps because the story is
quite weak. It rests on comparing British drinking habits with the rest
of the world – which in the BUPA survey means 11 other countries.
Including Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is illegal. None of the heaviest
drinking nations, in eastern Europe mostly, are included. The press
release footnote makes unfavourable comparison with India. India!
Contrary to what you might imagine while you’re quaffing the Cobra and
Kingfisher in your local curry house, drinking is not a significant
component of life for the vast majority of India’s 1.2 billion
citizens. It’s surely not a valid comparison.
BUPA reckons it is. In the release’s other refererence to alcohol,
under the recommendations, it says Britons should “challenge their
“People's social lives often revolve around the local pub. We have room to be more inventive with what we do socially, and come up with healthier alternatives.”
So while publicans are struggling to attract custom, and even medical temperance admits pubs are relatively healthy places to drink, BUPA says we ought to keep out of those unsalubrious dens of vice.
If it thinks keeping people out of the pub is a health priority, I’m glad nobody’s read its stupid report.
Although, having glanced through it, it’s quite an interesting – in a bad way – expression of neoliberal ideology from a private health company, and it does have an indirect impact on alcohol policy. So I might come back to it. If I’ve time.
*A problem greatly exacerbated by job cuts.
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