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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.

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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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