I’ve been meaning to revisit the subject of my column in last week’s Dominion Post, which was reproduced here. It was about Nigel Latta’s TV documentary on alcohol and it prompted a prickly response from him on his Facebook page.Latta accused me of resorting to name-calling and said I ignored the science that shows the harm done by alcohol. Obviously he felt I should have showed more deference towards the worthy professors he interviewed on the programme, whose statements he appeared to accept without question (in marked contrast to the open scepticism he displayed with the one liquor industry representative who appeared).
Actually, I’ve never denied that alcohol causes harm. It would be pointless to try. All I have done, consistently, is point out that the majority of New Zealand drinkers consume alcohol responsibly and without doing themselves or those around them any harm, and that they would be unfairly penalised if the anti-liquor crusaders, with their demands for swingeing restrictions, got their way.We didn’t hear from, or about, these responsible drinkers. You never do from people like professors Doug Sellman and Sally Casswell. That was the main point of my column – one that Latta didn’t answer.
As for science – well, it’s all about which statistics you choose to cite. The academics who appeared in Latta’s programme are highly selective about which statistics they present. They highlight dodgy figures that purport to show how many of us are “problem” drinkers and studiously ignore all the evidence that shows consumption is declining and that, in any case, New Zealanders are moderate drinkers by world standards. None of this was mentioned in Latta’s relentlessly alarmist documentary.Ultimately, the case against alcohol as articulated by Sellman, Casswell and Co. has more to do with ideology than science. They use their taxpayer-funded posts in academia to push for laws that would restrict the freedom and choices of the mugs who pay their salaries.
I was going to put this response on Latta’s Facebook page, but when I saw the tone of the comments from his legion of doting supporters, I realised I’d be wasting my time (he got 3,302 “likes”). So I made do with a brief statement pointing out that when someone puts himself forward in prime time on a publicly owned television channel, and takes highly contestable positions on contentious issues, he becomes fair game for criticism.It’s possible this is a new experience for Latta, since his parenting programmes were very popular. (My own wife and daughter were fans.) But he’d better get used to it.
I also pointed out that $750,000 of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the current series of six programmes made by Latta. There’s a very important question to be asked here: is it right that public money is used to fund a series of highly politicised documentaries on controversial social issues, and even more provocatively to screen them immediately before an election?It’s not the subject matter of the programmes that I object to, nor even the fact that they put forward views I heartily disagree with. What’s intolerable is that publicly funded “factual” programmes are so relentlessly partisan, with no attempt at balance. (I admit I saw only two of them, on alcohol and inequality, but both adopted simplistic, partisan positions on complex, politically sensitive issues. People who have seen other programmes in the series came to much the same conclusion.)
Before I leave this subject, I feel compelled to refer to some of the comments made on Facebook by Latta’s fans. I think they show the futility of trying to engage in any sort of useful dialogue.● Someone wrote that if the Dominion Post endorsed my column then perhaps it was time the paper reviewed its editorial policy. What you have here, then, is lamentable ignorance combined with intolerance of dissent – a lethal mix. (A New Zealand Party voter, perhaps?) That got 111 “likes”.
● Another commenter said that if I had to spend one weekend in an emergency ward, I’d soon change my tune. (There were several comments along similar lines.) This is a glorious non-sequitur. So because some people behave foolishly or badly when they drink, as they unquestionably do (and probably would even if alcohol was made harder to get), the rest of us must be penalised?● Someone else said I’m a global warming denier – ergo, a heretic. Gasp. What a shame they no longer burn people at the stake. (For the record, I’ve never “denied” global warming; I’m in no position to. But I am a sceptic, because people who know a lot more about climate science than I do keep coming up with good reasons to be sceptical.)
● Someone triumphantly pounced on the fact that several years ago I wrote a book about wine. Ah, a smoking gun! Clearly, I’m just another shill for the unscrupulous booze barons Latta talked about. (Inconvenient fact: hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders drink wine regularly without ending up in police cells or emergency wards. Who’d have thought?)● In response to this highly incriminating disclosure, someone else wrote: “Haha awesome, Karl is a drunk then. That’s why he didn’t like the programme.” And later, from another commenter: “Forgive him, he was probably rotten drunk when he wrote it.” Latta must be proud to have such sophisticated followers. (For the record again, I have four adult children. They have never seen me drunk.)
● It was pointed out that the academics on Latta’s programme all said they liked a drink themselves. I noted the same thing – they seemed to make a point of it. This is part of the cloak of piety they drape around themselves. It not only presents them as ordinary pleasure-loving Kiwis, but also demonstrates how grave the problem must be if they’re prepared to deny themselves the wicked pleasure of a cheap bottle of chardonnay from Pak ’n’ Save just to save the rest of us. It’s a variation of the old line from the parent or schoolteacher about to administer corporal punishment: “This hurts me as much it hurts you.”There was much more in similar vein, but I didn’t go any further. Reading comments on Facebook takes through you a cycle of emotions from depression to hilarity to despair. Nigel’s welcome to them.