Friday, January 15, 2016

How the media treat alcohol heretics

It’s funny, isn’t it, that a report questioning the demonisation of alcohol should get wide publicity only when it’s attacked by puritanical academics – this, nearly a year after its release.
That was the fate of British anthropologist Anne Fox’s March 2015 paper in which she argued that it’s simplistic and wrong to blame alcohol for violence and other bad behaviour.

Fox’s research, commissioned by liquor conglomerate Lion, was largely ignored by the media on its release. An odd exception was an interview with Fox on Wallace Chapman’s Sunday Mornings programme on Radio New Zealand – a rare case of someone from outside the politically approved (i.e. left-leaning) list getting airtime from the state broadcaster.
Apart from that and an article I wrote for The Listener, Fox’s paper was clearly deemed by media gatekeepers to be of no public interest, despite intense debate going back years over alcohol-related issues.

I can only surmise that this was because her key finding – that alcohol is too easily made a scapegoat for antisocial behaviour – was considered heretical, since it conflicted with the barrage of almost hysterical anti-liquor rhetoric New Zealanders are bombarded with.
It was only when two academics (one only a PhD student) issued a shallow and poorly written – in fact almost incomprehensible – critique this week that Fox’s paper got legs in the mainstream media, and then only because it provided a platform from which to attack her.

One News, Radio New Zealand and the New Zealand Herald all eagerly seized the opportunity to cast doubts on Fox’s credibility.
It’s not hard to follow the groupthink of the media decision-makers. Fox’s research was seen as ineradicably tainted because it was funded by Lion. Academics, on the other hand, are regarded as having only the purest of motives.

Of all the coverage yesterday, Radio New Zealand’s was the most appallingly one-sided. Interviewing a Hawke’s Bay emergency department doctor, whom we were obviously supposed to regard as the ultimate authority on the pernicious effects of alcohol, Summer Report presenter Teresa Cowie made her bias clear by referring to Fox’s research as “dodgy” – a plainly defamatory statement when made in respect of an anthropologist who has specialised in studying drinking cultures and substance abuse.
The interview demonstrated that many journalists are incapable of reporting fairly and impartially on alcohol-related issues. Sympathetic interviews with emergency department doctors – hardly the most objective commentators, given that they are confronted every day by the most extreme effects of alcohol – win out over measured, detached reporting.

To recap on Fox’s report, she argued that New Zealanders and Australians use drunkenness as an excuse for actions that wouldn’t be acceptable if the perpetrators were sober. But she pointed out that liquor consumption need not be synonymous with violence or bad behaviour – indeed, isn’t synonymous with antisocial behaviour for the vast majority of New Zealand drinkers, or indeed in many countries that have higher rates of alcohol consumption than ours.
Blaming alcohol as the sole cause of violence, she believes, diverts attention from “maladaptive cultural norms” that allow New Zealand and Australian men to be violent and aggressive.

As I wrote in The Listener: “Fox’s conclusion is that while alcohol gets the blame, the real problems are rooted in our cultural attitudes. We treat liquor as if it exerts some mystical power over us, thus allowing us to exempt ourselves from personal responsibility when we behave badly.”
This argument must have gone down like a cup of cold sick among the army of tut-tutting public health academics and bureaucrats who have spent years pushing for regulatory restraints on alcohol availability and consumption.

In their eyes, New Zealanders are powerless to control their behaviour once in the grip of alcohol and its manipulative purveyors. Talk of individual responsibility is anathema to the wowser lobby because it places the blame for antisocial behaviour squarely where it belongs – on the perpetrator rather than the demon drink.
The critique of Fox’s paper, written for the journal Addiction by University of Auckland PhD student Nicki Jackson and University of Newcastle (Australia) professor Kypros Kypri, argues that her research is unsound and has the potential to undermine “evidence-based” countermeasures to alcohol-related harm.

Inevitably, they highlight the fact that Fox’s research was funded by a brewery company. They also fault her paper on the basis that it was not peer-reviewed and had no “ethical” approval. Their own critique, of course, is packed with references to the mountains of academic literature on the dangers of alcohol.
But Fox’s critics spectacularly miss the point of her report. Nowhere in her paper did she deny a link between alcohol and violence. What she disputes is that alcohol is the cause.

Fox herself has methodically taken the critique apart in a response in which, among other things, she accuses Jackson and Kypri of misrepresenting statistics. One notable example relates to the percentage of Australian bar patrons questioned in a survey who had supposedly experienced violence over a three-month period.
Jackson and Kypri said the figure was one in 10, but Fox reveals the survey question didn’t actually mention the word “violence”. It asked patrons how many times they had experienced or witnessed [Fox’s italics] “any form of verbal, physical or sexual aggression in or around licensed venues in the three months prior to interview”.

As Fox says, this provides a very subjective measure. Some people might regard raised voices as evidence of aggression. You have to ask: whose credibility is in doubt here?
Fox also questions Kypri’s objectivity, alleging he’s a director of an obscure but long-established organisation called the Independent Order of Rechabites, which promotes abstinence from alcohol. In the New Zealand Herald, Kypri denied this, saying he’s involved in the Australian Rechabite Foundation, which he portrayed as a research and advocacy organisation. But he’s being cute: the Australian Rechabite Foundation’s website makes it clear that the foundation is an offshoot of, and affiliated with, the order.

“In my view,” Fox writes, “religious temperance beliefs about alcohol can cloud one’s objective scientific judgement, and such affiliations should be declared in conflict of interest statements as they belie an underlying non-scientific agenda.”
There’s an interesting contrast here. Fox was open about Lion’s sponsorship of her research, as she had to be (although she insists her contract gave her complete independence). Shouldn’t Kypri have similarly declared his affiliation with the Rechabites, which arguably had the same potential to sway his judgment?

I have my own doubts about the reliability of the Jackson-Kypri critique, given the authors’ claims that Fox’s findings were being used “extensively” by the liquor industry (they cite just one article in an Australian industry magazine), in the “mainstream media” (they mention only one instance – my Listener story) and in submissions by government agencies on public policy (again, they give only one instance – a relatively brief reference in a submission by the Director of the NSW Office of Public Prosecutions on alcohol- and drug-fuelled violence).
I know hyperbole when I see it; I’m a journalist, after all. When your story’s weak, the temptation is to pump it up by exaggerating.

As for the criticism that Fox didn’t seek ethical approval from an institution, she points out that her paper was written for a lay audience, not an academic journal.  That shows in her language, which is direct and clear, in marked contrast to the tortuous jargon used by her critics.
The irony here is that Fox’s report didn’t let the alcohol industry off the hook. She criticised some alcohol advertising for promoting macho behaviour and made no attempt to play down the negative effects of excessive alcohol consumption, especially among the young.

In her response to the critique, she writes: “My mission is not to absolve alcohol from all blame for societal problems – alcohol dependence is clearly a problem and a burden on health resources. However, it is obvious that blaming alcohol alone for violence in the NTE [night-time economy, the academic phrase for places where people drink] is an obfuscation of the real causes and does a disservice to the victims of violence.”
I don’t deny that there may have been flaws in Fox’s report. What research paper isn’t open to criticism? I accept too that she was an easy target because of the source of her financial backing. But as someone who has been writing about alcohol issues for nearly 40 years, I found her main conclusions compelling.

They are borne out by everyday observation, which confirms that most New Zealanders are perfectly capable of drinking without getting violent or otherwise behaving badly. Ask yourself: when did you last witness a brawl, or even an angry confrontation, in a café where people were drinking?
In other words, it’s wrong and simplistic to blame liquor. End of story.

But here’s the main point. Fox’s paper provided an opportunity for a debate that might have shed some new light on the ugly side of New Zealand’s drinking culture. It offered an alternative explanation to that pushed relentlessly by agenda-driven academics and bureaucrats. But her critics would rather shut the debate down, and sadly the media have allowed themselves to be co-opted toward that end.


david said...

I can believe the results of her study, the same applies to teenagers who drink alcohol with the deliberate intention of using this to excuse their subsequent sexual behaviour. There seems to be a faction in the MSM who want prohibition. We had the campaign to lower drink driving limits and destroy social drinking. We are not allowed to mention that the real problem is limited to a small sector of the community because that would be racist.

Karl du Fresne said...

I agree that only a small sector of the community has a drinking problem, but I don't believe it has anything to do with race. In the majority of the instances of binge drinking and drunk driving that I read about, the offenders are Pakeha.

ZenTiger said...

Nice post. Her main point is very significant and worthy of discussion. Unfortunately, not going to happen in our mainstream media channels.

The first I heard of this report was a cartoon today in the Sunday Start Times. It made out that this report was commissioned by the alcohol industry, so no surprises that it found alcohol is not the cause of any alcohol-related problems.

And there-in lies the problem. They are not problems of underlying social issues, exacerbated by alcohol, they are merely "alcohol-related". The pattern is to blame the symptom and not the underlying issues. Thus, Alcohol creates Violence, Smacking creates child abuse, Social Media creates bullying, guns create mass murder.

So what is the underlying problem? Climate-change, no doubt. [joking!]

hughvane said...

I do hope you've read the page of garbage about NZ'er's drinking habits published in the Press of Sat 16 January. Does Prof Selman and his social engineering ilk have the media at their beck and call?

Clint Marriage said...

Good article. As Frank Zappa said, "A drug is not bad. A drug is a chemical compound. The problem comes in when people who take drugs treat them like a license to behave like an asshole."