Wednesday 3 October 2012

Lies, damn lies and Sheffield University research

A few weeks ago, the BBC screened an episode of Panorama entitled Old, Drunk and Disorderly?, taking a predictably hysterical line towards levels of drinking amongst older people. It was presented by no less than the erstwhile “thinking man’s crumpet” Joan Bakewell (who incidentally originally hails from Stockport). I was away at the time and so did not see it or comment on it.

This programme made the somewhat surprising claim, apparently based on research by Sheffield University, that imposing a minimum alcohol price of 50p per unit would, over a ten-year period, save the lives of no less than 50,000 older people in England. When the total of deaths wholly or mainly attributable to alcohol amongst all age groups is running at about 7,000 a year in England, such a figure is hard to believe, to say the least.

This was challenged by a member of the public and, after investigation, it turned out that the original figure had been overstated by more than four times. The actual figure, based on the research, was more like 11,500. This led to the following embarrassing retraction on the the BBC website:

Correction 28 September 2012: The main figure in this story has been amended from 50,000 to 11,500 after it emerged that there had been an error in the calculations carried out for Panorama by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield.
Apparently Ms Bakewell is also going to be called in to re-record the relevant sections of the programme for BBC iPlayer.

It doesn’t say much for the standards of journalistic rigour practised at the BBC nowadays that such a self-evidently questionable claim was allowed to pass without challenge. And, given that an error of this magnitude managed to get through the system of academic peer review, what credence can we give to any of the research produced by the University of Sheffield that is being used to support the case for minimum pricing?

Even 1,150 a year seems a questionable figure based on broad-brush assumptions. That is a sixth of the annual total and, while alcohol consumption per head has fallen by more than 20% over the past eight years, there has not been a commensurate reduction in the death rate, so to claim such a fall as a likely consequence of the policy demands a large leap of the imagination.

The truth is that, as it has never been tried, we simply do not know what the impact would be, and it is well-known that across-the-board reductions in average consumption are not necessarily reflected equally amongst all categories of drinkers. I would guess that, in practice, it would be hard to discern any significant variation from existing trends.

It also seems that the older generation are increasingly being portrayed as irresponsible bad boys (and girls) in the media. As well as alcohol, within the past couple of months I’ve seen the typical scare stories about them engaging in unprotected sex and taking illegal drugs, and it can’t be too long before we see similar reports about them eating junk food, “continuing to smoke” and engaging in risky driving behaviour. You get the impression that many would prefer the over-sixties to sit quietly in the old folks’ home, listening to Max Bygraves, eating grey slurry and waiting patiently for death.


  1. Yes, on a special occasion they might even give them a can of Tesco Value Lager, although anything stronger would probably overtax them.

  2. Shocking - as any fan of Oklahoma knows, there's nothing to make you want to burst into song like slurry with a binge on top ...

    Incidentally, the first Captcha panel below is currently completely black - marvellous.

  3. As I am sure the Panorama team are well aware, retractions have so little impact when set against the effect of regularly beaming half hour propaganda features into the nations living rooms at prime time. This is not their first offense.

  4. It is, I'm sure, quite deliberately and cynically done, in the knowledge that the MSM will uncritically print / air any old garbage as long as it ticks the right PC boxes. The Puritans putting out these press releases know full well that even if they are caught, the massaged figures will have hit the public consciousness, and any retraction will get a couple of column inches on the back page, whereas the original was front page headlines. They did the same thing with the "smoke in a car is 23 times that of a smokey pub". It was only in the blogosphere that people were aware of the retraction. Joe Public took the "23 x" away with him.

  5. Further to my comment above, I just came across an excellent article by Chris Snowdon in 'Spiked' on this very subject.

  6. I watched this show and to be frank was a little disappointed. I was expecting old codgers like you and Clarkey to be puking and fighting in the street after too much wife beating strength real ale. There was none of that.

    Instead we were presented with a sad tale, largely I suspect true, of a portion of retired people who without a hinterland find that after the kids have flown the nest and the world of work no longer needs them are a little lost for something to do with their days and eventually find they have a drink problem.

    Some of the numbers like you have pointed out were dodgy, but some like the number of elderly alkies where sadly true.

    The solution isn't more expensive grog, as we all know. The lesson of the piece I picked up was that in life you need a hinterland. Something unrelated to work you can look forward to having more time to do given the chance. I suspect beer or pub enthusiasm isn't the optimal hinterland you can choose.

  7. Yes, Cooking Lager, a few pleasant hobbies will do the trick - like brewing your own beer and wine and growing your own tobacco plants.


  8. I know of an old lady in her 80s who was told she should cut out smoking as it could damage her health. She gave as good as she got - better in fact.

  9. I've just complained to the BBC - not that I expect it will do much good.

  10. This is the response I received today to my complaint about the inaccuracies in the programme:

    Many thanks for taking the time to email in your feedback to newsonline. Your complaint has been passed to me as Deputy Editor of Panorama. In this instance, the error was not down to our journalists but solely the responsibility of the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR). They had carried out work for the Scottish government forecasting the impact on annual deaths of minimum unit pricing for alcohol. This research was widely reported at the time.

    For our programme on drink and the over 65s with Dame Joan Bakewell, we asked them to carry out similar work – this time forecasting the impact on deaths among the over-65s in England of a minimum alcohol unit price of 50p. As is usual, the team checked the figures with them and how they were used in the script several times during the course of the production and were assured our use of them was accurate. Unfortunately, some weeks after broadcast, ScHARR realised a basic error had been made in their analysis and not spotted meaning their forecast for the number were four times higher than they should have been.

    The error is of course regrettable and not something we would wish to happen. As its statement – which I’ve attached for your benefit - makes plain, ScHARR accepts full responsibility for the error. The BBC news online page was corrected on receipt [of] the statement and arrangements made for the i-player version of our programme to be amended. ScHARR is at pains to point out that the mistake in its forecast for us was entirely separate from its forecast for the Scottish Government which they say contained no such error.

    To which I have replied:

    Thank you very much for your reply. Might I suggest that at the beginning or end of a future Panorama programme the record is set straight, as the people who saw the original broadcast are extremely unlikely to watch it again on iPlayer? It need take only a few seconds and will certainly persuade me that you regard accuracy more highly than the propaganda of the alcohol campaigners.


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