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Jan 28, 2014

Alcohol and violence: Fairfax's shameless campaign of misrepresentation

Desperate newspapers and a rejection of basic facts has proved a toxic combination in NSW over the issue of alcohol-related violence.


This is the story of how a desperate media company has corrupted public debate, leading to significant curbs on basic rights and bad policy in NSW.

An 18-year-old man, Daniel Christie, was critically injured in an assault in Sydney on New Year’s Eve. He died on January 11 after his family decided to take him off life support. The man alleged to have hit Christie, one Shaun McNeil, was subsequently charged with murder.

The death of Daniel Christie, like the deaths of other young men in similar circumstances, is an appalling tragedy. His family are plainly suffering the most dreadful grief. And I say that as the father of teenage boys.

The Sydney Morning Herald was campaigning on alcohol-related violence before the attack on Christie. It had run a number of comment and reporting pieces in December about what its journalists portrayed as rising levels of violence in Sydney. Public health lobbyists pushing for higher alcohol taxes and bans on bottle shops, such as Dr Gordian Fulde of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, were happy to join in the Herald’s campaign. Fulde has been campaigning against alcohol for over a decade, although he has also spoken about the effects of ice, cocaine and cannabis; he has also claimed that kebab shops are a threat.

Fulde is insistent that violence is getting worse in Sydney and that alcohol is to blame. It is a claim that the Herald was happy to repeat. It is also a claim that is blatantly false. Not false in a “we can agree to disagree” sense, or in a “lies, damned lies and statistics” way; it is plainly false and self-evidently so to anyone who bothers to check. Last year’s Review of the Liquor Act 2007 and Gaming and Liquor Administration Act 2007 showed that violent incidents on licensed premises had fallen 28% from 2007, and alcohol-related assaults had fallen 35% between 2008 and 2012. Assaults across NSW had also fallen significantly, as had hospital presentations for acute alcohol-related problems.

And for those who believe that review was a Big Grog conspiracy, you can go to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research site and look at the data yourself. In fact, just how wrong the public health lobby and the Herald are in their claims about violence and alcohol can be demonstrated in three graphs. Assaults in Sydney have fallen significantly, including in actual numbers regardless of population growth, in recent years:

And Australians are drinking significantly less than they drank in the 1970s and 1980s, and less than five years ago. 

And the most recent data (it will be updated later this year) shows binge drinking among teens is stable or down, too. 

Only the Herald’s Inga Ting had the courage to buck the trend at Fairfax, using actual data to show that Australians were already heavily taxed when it comes to alcohol and that lifting the price was unlikely to have the effect claimed by the public health lobby.

But her colleagues struggled with the facts. Sean Nicholls reluctantly addressed that BOCSAR figures showed big falls in assaults. Instead of admitting they contradicted Fairfax’s campaign, he claimed instead that the data were “confusing” and “an environment ripe for cherry picking of statistics by governments and lobby groups”. Apparently it wasn’t quite ripe enough, because Nicholls was unable to cherry-pick any numbers himself to support claims about rising violence. Dr Don Weatherburn of BOCSAR immediately responded to Nicholls’ “confusion” by releasing detailed statistics showing falls in assaults on and off licensed premises in Kings Cross.

Fulde had a different take on the reason the data didn’t match his claims about rising violence — that the number of assaults might not be increasing, but their severity was. But no one has been able to present any evidence to back that up. By Fulde’s logic, there should have been an increase in the number of incidents of non-driving manslaughter in recent years. But that number shifts randomly between zero and four in any given year in inner Sydney — there were four in 2012 and four in 2003; zero in 2001 and zero in 2013. In the whole of the Sydney area, manslaughter is significantly down on 1990 levels.

The indisputable fact that the level of street violence in Sydney has significantly improved and that Australia’s “booze-soaked culture” is one of declining alcohol consumption and less binge drinking didn’t deter Fairfax, especially after the death of Christie. Belatedly, the SMH was joined by the Daily Telegraph, baying for blood over the issue of king-hit assaults or, as to use the more politically correct term, “coward punches”.

This takes us to the most relevant statistics about this whole sordid affair. The Sydney Morning Herald’s circulation is in freefall — it lost more than 15% of its circulation in the year to September. And in 2013, it fell 7 points in its readers’ trust, according to Essential Research’s trust in media survey, tumbling to 64%. The Telegraph is Australia’s least-trusted metro title — trusted by only 41% of its readers — and its circulation fell by nearly as much as the Herald’s in the year to September. They are two dying newspapers, each desperate to outdo the other.

Faced with both of the city’s newspapers running a fictional campaign, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell gave in. He’d previously invoked the evidence of the declining nature of the problem of violence in Sydney, and alcohol-fueled violence in particular, but in the end he had no politically palatable choice: he announced a package of policies. A new offence was created and coupled with a mandatory minimum sentence. Arbitrary lockouts and closing times were imposed on venues within an arbitrarily defined area. Bottle shops, doubtless to the delight of the clubs and pubs that keep being targeted as the villains in all this, must now shut at 10pm. Supplying steroids was elevated to an offence on par with dealing in heroin.

Surprisingly, kebab shops remain unmolested at this point, but for how long, who knows.

O’Farrell’s package was awful. Mandatory minimum sentences don’t deter people, give more power to governments and their agents at the expense of courts and often lead to a wider variety of sentences rather than greater uniformity (they’re a reflexive law-and-order measure for US politicians; see what the conservative Cato Institute has to say about them). Suddenly steroids are being treated like the worst kinds of narcotics. The rest of the measures appear designed to infuriate and inconvenience drinkers and generate additional revenue for clubs and pubs. The targeting of bottle shops is particularly concerning because bottle shops are on the hit list of the public health lobby, which is devoting considerable resources to demonizing drinking at home (using the Orwellian term “pre-loading”) and claiming there are too many bottle shops, it is too easy to buy alcohol online and alcohol is too cheap.

O’Farrell’s package was so bad even Campbell Newman, serial violator of Queenslanders’ basic liberties, thought it was too much.

But there’s a longer-term problem here. Public debate on an important issue has been degraded, and poor policy outcomes produced, as the direct result of the blatant rejection of evidence and logic by a major media outlet. Normally this is the sort of charge that is leveled at News Corp’s papers, but in this case it is Fairfax. The Herald was the outlet that in October declared it would no longer publish letters from climate denialists. This was its rationale:

“Climate change deniers or sceptics are free to express opinions and political views on our page but not to misrepresent facts. This applies to all our contributors on any subject.”

Clearly it doesn’t apply to Fairfax’s editors and journalists who have shamelessly peddled claims that were obviously false in pursuit of an hysterical campaign that led to curbs on people’s basic rights, and bad criminal justice policy.



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31 thoughts on “Alcohol and violence: Fairfax’s shameless campaign of misrepresentation

  1. marcia lewis

    Good point about misrepresenting the facts for the sake of propping up an ailing business model. Nevertheless, Australians do have an immature relationship with alcohol with over 51% consuming in excess of the guidelines (National Drug Strategy Household Survey 2010). Per capita alcohol consumption has remained pretty constant over the last 20 years. It’s high by world standards. This is the real story.

  2. Michael

    Well constructed, supported, and argued. A comprehensive rebuttal of the shrill alarmism of Fairfax etc. Given the demise of print media this sort of confected hysteria is likely to be a self-liquidating problem.

  3. Thomas McLoughlin

    Not convinced by those stats.

    A good two years ago I noticed the grim mind babble of “UFC” widescreen in North Sydney pub glorifies violence while patrons sink beers. How many other pubs across Sydney?

    Now you can’t go anywhere without a very big widescreen LCD.

    Looks like reinforcement of violence via a drug induced psychological pathway. Refer foxtel UFC

    Then there is another new factor around being the access to internet porn which must put alot of pressureon teenagers and twenty year olds sorting out their sexual identity (as per a doco on SBS recently – where else!).

    And finally since when was a decline in assault figures a goal in itself? Like the road toll it’s nearly always too high. So if society is becoming less tolerant of violence/ alcohol and violence / health impacts of alcohol – it’s probably a good thing.

  4. Daly

    Great article, thanks!

  5. paddy

    Magnificent rant there Bernard. (With graphs worthy of the Possum.)

  6. David Hand

    It’s always good to see analysis and opinion based on facts. I don’t think TV is blameless either as weeping relatives of victims fit into the “If it bleeds it leads” modus operandi.

  7. Kfix

    Thanks for the feels, Thomas McLoughlin, never mind these pesky facts. Not when there’s PR0N and TVs!!!

    And no, you’re quite right, we don’t want to actually decrease assaults, we just want to be intolerant of them.

  8. johnb78

    “It’s high by world standards.”

    Only if you include the countries where everyone is too poor to afford drink and/or banned from drinking by their religion. By the standards of rich counties, it’s about average.

  9. colin skene

    Well, they’ve got to compete with the Daily Telegraph. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Publish rubbish and bask in the glory of the outcome….whatever it takes.

  10. Scott Grant

    A good article. Although, like Tom I still think we are too tolerant of alcohol and other commercialised addictions. I reckon the alcohol industry have got their own way too often and too much and it is about time they were reigned in a bit. Now what about betting and pokies, Barry?

    I also agree about the SMH. I am seriously wondering if it is worth buying anymore. It seems to have gone downhill quite rapidly this year. The opinion pages seem to be getting pre-loaded with raving loony right wingers. How about a couple of raving loony lefties or greenies for balance?

  11. Andrea

    Interesting that the SMH’s circulation is in free fall. Not surprising; since it went tabloid it has published articles to match. And the website is a disgrace; nothing but clickbait.

  12. zut alors

    Interesting how the per capita alcohol consumption peaked during the Whitlam & Fraser eras but steadily declined during the Rudd/Gillard era. Why..?

  13. AR

    Nothing like a moral panic to forge bad laws and rilly, rilly obscure reality.

  14. JohnB

    While ware rearranging the english language, let’s consider a few more changes.

    I will start.

    The term “coward punch” has been coined. It is clumsy, but is a good one. Certainly much better than “king hit”.

    I wonder about “life support”. Does this really mean “organ support”, during a period in which assessments are made regarding the life or otherwise of the patient n accordance with medico-legal guidelines.

    I expect to be slapped down for suggesting the term “organ support”, but what do psychologists and others who deal with this unfortunate situation professionally think?

  15. Andrew Davison

    Bernard Keane – outstanding!

  16. Frank Birchall

    Bernard’s article is overcooked in my opinion. It should be a concern to all of us that roughly 33% of 14-19 year-olds engage in binge drinking with a frequency ranging from ‘every day’ to ‘at least once a month’ and this percentage has not changed between 2007 and 2010. Moreover, latest data is at least 3 years old. Binge drinking is a big negative for the drinkers involved (many under-age)and indeed the rest of society.

    The criticism of Dr Fulde is dubious. He believes that severity of assaults is increasing, based on his first-hand observations. That is ‘evidence’. It is misleading to refute his views on the basis of the number of non-driving ‘manslaughter incidents’ (whatever ‘incidents’ mean). What about victims seriously injured but not killed? A recent example is Michael McEwen.

  17. Northy

    I couldn’t disagree with you more Bernard. I understand this is a very personal issue for you and you have a very strong pre-existing stance on the matter; this is evidenced by a number of articles you have written on the subject, all with the same alcohol liberalisation slant, and also your personal tweets.

    Unfortunately you haven’t touched on the significant research not only in Australia but also overseas that shows reducing trading hours and outlet density leads to a subsequent reduction in alcohol-related violence and anti-social behaviour. As you mention, Fairfax claims to deal with facts, and in this case that is exactly what they have done. Would you have liked them to ignore all of the research into the impacts of reducing alcohol availability? I don’t believe they have misrepresented the issue at all – they made it clear that assaults have reduced inside venues but have remained stable on the streets in areas such as Kings Cross.

    But it is about more than the two tragic deaths in Kings Cross; Sydney’s alcohol hot-spots are a global embarrassment. I am 31 years old and I started campaigning almost 10 years ago on this issue while I was still going out every weekend. I saw these inner-city areas transform dramatically. The intense focus on 24-hour drinking led to thousands of drunk idiots on the street acting like animals.

    The liberal planning and licensing laws in this state led to the creation of areas that only cater to one activity: getting blind as anything and leaving personal responsibility at home. It will take strong laws such as those proposed by the NSW government to bring some normality back to these booze-soaked areas.

  18. BookishMisfit

    The number of alcohol related assaults is still in the thousands, Bernard. This matters if you are a victim or the family member of a victim and also if you are health professional helping to repair those injured.

    The toll is still far too high. It would be good to get the numbers down to almost nothing.

  19. ZA

    @North and BookishMishfit:

    I think you missed the opening sentence of the article:

    “This is the story of how a desperate media company has corrupted public debate, leading to significant curbs on basic rights and bad policy in NSW.”

    The key subject is the ‘desperate media company’. Anyhow that is how I understood it. The violent results of Alcohol have been around for ages, so think; why are they pushing it now???

  20. Northy

    The argument that Fairfax created this campaign because they are a ‘desperate media company’ is also heavily flawed. The SMH is the most-read masthead in Australia. Their website regularly tops the list of Australian news websites. It is not readers they are struggling with – it’s advertising revenue. A large number of their advertisers are alcohol companies, so it’s reasonable to assume an anti-alcohol campaign would be more likely to damage Fairfax’s business rather than improve it.

    In reality, this campaign resulted from years of growing community concern over the state of Sydney’s ‘entertainment precincts’ and the reluctance of successive governments to upset the Hotels industry and implement measures proven to work. The catalyst was the deaths of two innocent boys in the exact same location in Kings Cross.

  21. Bruce Joyce

    ‘Not … “lies, damned lies and statistics” ‘, you say?
    Look more into the stats for assaults and look at the percentage that are alcohol related. Look at the stats for police callouts and you’ll see a ridiculously large percentage are alcohol related.
    Fairfax may be cynical with their campaign, it may be over blown but the statistical evidence that alcohol is a serious public health issue that needs to be seriously addressed is undeniable.

  22. Bo Gainsbourg

    Mandatory sentencing is stupid, but where is the problem with taking measures to reduce grog abuse? That’s a good thing, even if its declining. Seems a bit weirdly overblown response to me.

  23. Bo Gainsbourg

    I agree with Bruce Joyce, you need to say something about the shocking toll grog abuse does have on society, the health system, and certain areas where its occurring intensely. You seem to be saying that’s fine? Or that govt shouldn’t try to improve it?

  24. Dogs breakfast

    The whole ‘blame alcohol’ thing looks exactly like a solution to a complex problem that is neat, elegant, and wrong!

    In the late 70’s and early 80’s, in my teens and 20’s, everyone was drinking, everyone drank to get drunk, there were media beat-ups about the new disgraceful drinking ethic of the time, until it was repeatedly pointed out that the generation before, and the generation before and the generation before that, back to the first fleet actually, all drank to excess, with the express purpose of getting drunk.

    So drink is not the problem, per se.

    The one punch artists, well that is a bit new. Behemoths beating up on young boys, that’s a little new (well, outside of institutional settings)

    But there is some merit in looking at closing times. If you haven’t had a skinful by 3.00 am, then it is fair to say you just aren’t trying hard enough. 1.30 lockouts and 3.00 am last drinks seems an entirely reasonable response.

    But don’t just blame the drink, there is more going on here.

  25. Dogs breakfast

    BTW, yes of course, pre-loading never happened in my day. Only these clever young punks thought of that one, everybody in my day went straight to the most expensive outlets and drank there. (Yes, that was an attempt at irony)

    As for this “Suddenly steroids are being treated like the worst kinds of narcotics.”

    I’d suggest Bernard that steroids may well be much more detrimental to society than narcotics. It’s not that difficult an argument to make.

  26. Scott Grant

    There is nothing wrong with blaming alcohol. It is a dangerous and powerful drug that is the direct cause of a lot of unnecessary harm in society. In the 19th Century, some doctors would prescribe heroin to alcoholics in the belief that it caused less harm. But we cannot ban it (alcohol), for a variety of reasons. Limiting access is a good practice. In the last few decades we seem to have gone in the opposite direction with this mad idea that no-one should ever be momentarily deprived of the opportunity to get blotto.

    On punch artists is not new. I lived in Surry Hills in the early 80’s and often walked the streets of Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and King’s Cross. I often observed car loads of bogans whose idea of a big night out was to travel to the Cross to hunt “pooftas”. As a male who sometimes walked the streets at night by myself I was occasionally a target although mostly it was just verbal abuse. I recall one night, while walking down Kellet Street, a complete stranger swung a punch at me. No warning and no reason. Had it connected I could have been seriously injured. I saw it coming, ducked under it, and kept walking.

  27. mikeb

    Yep nothing to see here. Just move along please. The only difference is that now the thugs like to film themselves. Some are even stupid enough to publicly post on youtube or similar. The streets weren’t safe in the 70/80s either with drink driving pre-breatho also a standard nightly event.

  28. Thomas McLoughlin

    My comment above did have some weak English expression, true.

    Thinking on the decline in assualt statistics – how much is due to the very campaigns we are amidst now , but at a lower level? With this campaign a higher profile extension?

    How much is due to leadership of such as police commissioner Scipione on his OH&S mantra (let alone exposing alcohol fueled domestic violence). Who can forget the stories of booze and corrupt cops of former years in the Royal Commish.

    I just can’t help thinking there is no bad situation alcohol can’t make worse – it’s subjective, anecdotal and sincere. It’s also probably common sense.

    And perhaps the harsh liveability of an increasingly overcrowded society and hostile traffic (particularly in Sydney) is one of those bad background factors inviting more anaesthetic. And just imagine the skyrocketing alcohol sales if we had the GFC, and still get a GFC 2 under Abbott.

    The casualty rate may yet get scary.

  29. Chris Hartwell

    @Scott Grant – you’re faster than me sir – I only had time to raise a shoulder to block a round punch aimed at my throat in Fortitude Valley.

  30. Claudia McEwen

    A very cynical attitude that the only reason fairfax is pursuing this story is to increase its circulation. The number of assaults may be falling, as it should, but there are still far too many. You talk about misrepresenting the facts. The fact is the worst assaults occur outside licensed premises. The reason they have fallen inside pubs and clubs is because of the actions of the police and the state government over the last 5 years.Now they are moving to clean up the streets. For years the pubs and clubs have had it their own way – now the government is taking a bit back. I don’t see the problem in imposing a few restrictions that will potentially reduce young people’s intake of alcohol. If it means they get home at 4am instead of 6am I’m all for it.

    And poor old Gordian Fulde – he’s on the frontline. Why bag him for pointing out the bleeding obvious – many assaults take place outside pubs and clubs eg) at fast food joints where a punch can result in a collision of a head on a hard surface (unlike inside many pubs).

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