November 2012

Careless with the Facts

If university researchers can get their figures wrong by a factor of four, can we trust any of their work?

BACK IN September, the BBC screened an episode of “Panorama” entitled “Old, Drunk and Disorderly?”, taking a predictably hysterical line towards levels of drinking amongst older people, and presented by the erstwhile “thinking man’s crumpet” Joan Bakewell (incidentally a native of Stockport). The 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 an embarrassing retraction on the the BBC website, and Ms Bakewell being called back in to the studio 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, which is a sixth of the total, seems a questionable figure. 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. Alcohol consumption is already steadily falling year-on-year, and I would guess that, in practice, it would be hard to spot any significant variation from existing trends.

This is also another example of a growing trend to portray the older generation as being irresponsible and criticising them whenever they have the temerity to actually enjoy themselves.

Real Beer, Real Counties

Traditional beers should be associated with traditional counties, not their modern keg equivalents

LOCAL Stockport brewery Robinson’s have recently, as part of their rebranding exercise, adopted the identity of “Cheshire Family Brewers”. Some have jibbed at this, saying it is living in the past, and that Stockport was moved from Cheshire to Greater Manchester in 1974. However, it was never the intention of the 1974 local government reforms to change geography. As a spokesman for the Department of the Environment said at the time: “The new county boundaries are solely for the purpose of defining areas of local government. They are administrative areas, and will not alter the traditional boundaries of Counties, nor is it intended that the loyalties of people living in them will change.”

Since then, we have seen a whole raft of piecemeal reforms to the 1974 structure, which has resulted in a confusing and inconsistent mishmash of administrative areas with different statuses and levels of power. As argued by that admirable organisation, The Association of British Counties, “what we need is a fixed frame of popular geographical reference that is independent of the successive whims of local government reorganisation”. This happens in Northern Ireland, which has been divided into 26 unitary districts, but where people still continue to strongly identify themselves with its six traditional counties. So why can’t the same work in England?

Stockport, in geographical terms, is indisputably within the county of Cheshire, and long may it and its beers remain so!