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    Does BBC Radio 2 encourage heavy drinking? Welcome to the weird world of public health

    3 May 2017

    Is the BBC driving you to drink? According to a study published in the Journal of Public Health — and reported in the Daily Mail — middle-aged Radio 2 listeners are being subtly encouraged to binge drink by disc jockeys who can’t stop talking about alcohol. After listening to hours of the radio, the authors concluded that drinking alcohol is ‘often portrayed as the norm … with few associations being negative or discouraging of drinking’.

    The study in question is a classic of the genre. Titled ‘Is popular radio a source of exposure to alcohol references in mid to later life? A content analysis’, it teaches us several lessons. Here are five of them.

    1. Public health journals will publish anything

    The fieldwork involved listening to 103 hours of BBC Radio 2, XFM, Capital Birmingham and Downtown Radio. This might sound like the kind of research that any chump could do, but it’s in good company. Public health journals are currently awash with papers in which researchers do no more than read Twitter hashtags, watch television or conduct a ‘web-based document search’ (ie, use Google).

    Listening to the radio and counting references to alcohol would barely pass muster as a school project. And yet this trivial piffle was not only published in the relatively respectable Journal of Public Health but formed the basis of a master’s degree in public health for one of the authors.

    This would not be so bad if it provided useful observations about the world, but this paper, like many others, has no academic merit. It purports to be about the influence of radio stations on the drinking habits of middle-aged people, but it does not involve any middle-aged people, it doesn’t measure drinking habits, and it has no way of measuring how the two variables interact. The authors admit that their study ‘can in no way make any claims as to the likely impact upon drinking behaviour and actual alcohol consumption’. The sum total of its contribution to human knowledge is the observation that people on the radio sometimes mention alcohol. We need a peer-reviewed study to tell us this?

    2. It’s never really about ‘the children’

    ‘Think of the children’ has been the nanny state’s mantra for decades. Higher taxes? It’s to deter children from buying alcohol. Minimum pricing? It’s to stop alcohol being sold at ‘pocket money prices’. Advertising bans? They are to ‘protect’ children from ‘exposure’ to marketing. But when did ‘think of the children’ become ‘think of the 55- to 64-year-olds’? At what age do you become old enough to make your own decisions in the world of ‘public health’? Surely a 60-year-old can handle ‘being exposed to references to alcohol’?

    Stations such as Radio 2 and XFM have a broader listening demographic than 55- to 64-year-olds, so it is not obvious why these people are the focus of this study. The authors’ justifications include the highly contestable claims that baby boomers are ‘the first generation to grow up in a consumer society’ and are ‘the first generation to have been consistently exposed to mass media advertising throughout their lives’. A more likely explanation is that middle-aged people drink slightly more than other groups and are therefore seen as the best chance to keep the ‘binge Britain’ narrative going while alcohol consumption continues to fall.

    Or maybe there is just more funding available for research into middle-aged drinking. Whatever the reason, it is clear that the ‘public health’ lobby does not distinguish between children and adults. Even those who are approaching retirement are not too old to be nannied.

    3. The policy implications are totalitarian

    The authors lament that ‘there is no policy related to alcohol and media in adults’ and suggest that research like theirs could ‘help to inform future policy development’. Alas, they do not hint at the kind of policies that could be introduced to prevent middle-aged people hearing about other middle-aged people going to the pub, but it is difficult to think of any that would not be Orwellian.

    Insofar as there is a public health problem to be tackled here (and there isn’t), it does not involve advertising. There is no advertising on the BBC and the authors of the study found no advertising from alcohol companies on the commercial stations. The authors’ beef is with people having the temerity to mention the existence of alcohol in public and — shock, horror — to discuss it in a broadly positive way.

    The issue is therefore about basic free speech. The policy prescriptions don’t bear thinking about, but the anti-drink lobby could take their cue from the zealots of the anti-smoking lobby who regularly complain about people smoking in reality TV shows and want outdoor smoking bans to prevent children (yes, it’s children again) from seeing people smoke.

    4. Nanny statists can’t tell cause from effect

    ‘Public health’ campaigners don’t really believe in free will. They think people’s behaviour and desires are determined by powerful institutions, such as industry and the media. This is a mainstream delusion in left-wing academia but is made worse by the implicit assumption in ‘public health’ that people have a latent desire to lead a life of purity and abstinence. Since everybody is assumed to want to optimise their health, risk-taking behaviour must be an unnatural aberration forced on the public by The System. Society is to blame, and if you change society by passing lots of laws, you will free the individual to follow his true nature.

    This is the sheerest codswallop, of course. A fraction of a second’s thought is enough to realise that the alcohol industry exists because people like drinking, not the other way way round. Alcohol consumption has not been ‘normalised’ by powerful interests. People have been drinking for thousands of years. Eighty-three per cent of adults in Britain drink alcohol. By any sane definition, it is a normal, commonplace activity.

    The authors of the study are therefore looking at the issue from the wrong end of the telescope. References to alcohol on the radio do not ‘normalise’ drinking and make people consume alcohol. On the contrary, alcohol is normal and most people drink it, therefore it sometimes gets mentioned on the radio.

    5. ‘Public health’ researchers are not normal

    The authors found that when alcohol is mentioned on the radio it is ‘often implied as a staple, necessity or norm, or as something to give as a gift’. They noted that ‘around 90 per cent of all associations identified were either positive or neutral, with few associations being negative or discouraging of drinking’.

    In other words, references to alcohol on the radio accurately reflect the public’s attitude towards alcohol, which is broadly positive, but does not reflect the ‘public health’ view of alcohol, which is overwhelmingly negative. Not only do the references on the radio reflect the public’s view, they are literally the public’s view. The authors note that ‘the greatest proportion of references to alcohol came from presenters reading out listeners’ social media messages’. It is therefore not a question of degenerate disc jockeys promoting binge-drinking to their suggestible listeners. Instead, they are holding up a mirror to society. They are not ‘reinforcing’ social norms, they are reflecting social norms, and ‘public health’ researchers do not like what they see.

    It is always a disconcerting experience for ‘public health’ academics when they come face-to-face with the public and so they do it as little as possible. If they had a little more self-awareness, they would see that it is they who are abnormal, not the man on the street.

    A normal person who heard Ken Bruce asking a caller if she’s going to have a drink to celebrate her birthday would interpret it as friendly small talk, but in the world of public health academia, it is a ‘source of exposure to alcohol references’ that could ‘reinforce norms of excessive consumption and promote purchases of cheap alcohol’. This hyper-medicalisation of everyday life is a profoundly odd way of looking at the world.