Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A cruisy ride for the august professor

TV One’s Close Up last night provided further evidence (not that it was needed) of the media’s unquestioning acceptance of the shrill propaganda emanating from the neo-wowser lobby.

Host Mark Sainsbury introduced the programme by asking whether “alcohol barons” were holding the government to ransom over proposals to cut the blood alcohol limit from 0.08 to 0.05. Implicit in Close Up 's coverage of the issue was that the government was wrong to reject advice from transport officials to lower the limit – the heavy implication being that since there was no valid reason for doing so, there could only be ulterior ones.

To prove this beyond all doubt Close Up wheeled out yet another academic “expert” on alcohol – this one a professor from Perth – who confirmed that, yes, the only possible explanation for the decision to call for further research was that the government was in the pockets of the liquor industry.

This wild assertion went completely unchallenged by Sainsbury. The possibility that the government had made a sensible decision not to be rushed into a law change on the basis of incomplete (I would say biased) research by anti-liquor extremists in the bureaucracy and the universities wasn’t considered.

Sainsbury’s lead-in to the item, in which he rhetorically asked “Who’s calling the shots?” and “Do the liquor barons have too much say?” was a clear signal that Close Up wasn’t going to waste time subjecting the professor’s claim to any scrutiny.

Instead, the hard questions were all directed at Bruce Robertson, representing the Hospitality Association. Here, writ large, was the simplistic heroes-and-villains scenario so beloved of tabloid television: hotel and bar owners bad, moralistic academics good.

I would like to have seen Sainsbury put a couple of simple questions to the smug-looking professor (smug, no doubt, because he knew he was in for an easy ride). I would have pointed out that the road toll, far from suddenly becoming a national crisis as the academics would have us believe, has been in steady decline for years. I would have pointed out that the AA has published data that raises serious doubts about the efficacy of reducing the blood alcohol limit. I would have pointed out that per capita alcohol consumption in New Zealand, contrary to the impression given by the anti-liquor activists, is below the OECD average (and below that of Australia). And I would have pointed out that in the most recent drink-driving blitz, only 0.58 percent of the 31,777 drivers tested were over the limit.

How would the professor square these facts with the almost hysterical clamour for liquor law changes that would penalise responsible, moderate drinkers?

Close Up has researchers. It wouldn’t have taken too much effort to come up with one or two questions that might at least give the illusion of balance. But like much of the media, Close Up has uncritically bought in to the moral panic promoted by the neo-wowser lobby.

I think of my late colleague Frank Haden’s wonderful dictum – “Doubt everyone with gusto” – and wonder whatever happened to journalistic scepticism.


Eric Crampton said...

There's journalistic skepticism, it's just one-sided. Anything funded by Ministry of Health, where ideologues won't countenance the notion that alcohol has health benefits at moderate consumption levels, must be good because they're motivated by doing good, not by profit. Anything funded by industry must be bad because profit is bad.

Bearhunter said...

Can I just congratulate Bruce robertson for another sterling performance in defence of common sense? Surely the hardest working man in NZ at the moment.

I felt vaguely nauseous watching Sainsbury - who likes a drink himself - deferring to the Perth doctor. Is it possible tom have a debate on this issue without hysteria? Probably not, given the media's penchant for hyping stories beyond the bounds of reason.

Bearhunter said...

Apologies for the typos above. This issue gets me all a-quiver.

The probligo said...

I don't watch Sainsbury, but not for the reasons I refused point-blank to watch Holmes.

The very big problem with the liquor debate generally - not just limiting to drink-driving - is that many to most tend to confute the picture (factual as it is) of teenagers and pre-teens pissing out their brains in the middle of Hamilton or Timaru or Manners Mall, with the justifications given by many well-meaning people (many of them no doubt the same people as those horrified by teen binge drinking) of marriageable age, army service and full contractual ability.

Let's not - in the same way - confute the problems of TVNZ with the true nature of ratings driven television in general.

What Sainsbury presents (as does John Campbell) is what the ratings say his audience wants to hear and see.

Confirmation bias RULES!!

Bearhunter said...

Karl, given your sterling job of debunking the booze myths both on here and in print, I was wondering had you seen this:

Perhaps it's time to write a follow-up to those moany wankers who have been scribbling furious letters to the Listener...

Karl du Fresne said...

As you can see from the date (October 2007), that story has been around for quite some time. I've referred to it a couple of times in print. But it certainly tells you something about the arbitrary (in fact random) way the so-called experts determine what is supposedly safe or unsafe. They have bugger-all cred.