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This week’s dose of neopro distortion and lies

Look, I don’t want to keep banging this drum. But the media assault is now a constant bombardment.

Today’s (or rather yesterday’s) villains are the Daily Telegraph, with the story “Children drinking more than adult safe levels, official figures show.” Thanks to Jeff Pickthall for sending me the article and for finding the actual data – he’s very bullish about stuff like this.
Nowhere in the Telegraph article does it give you an actual percentage figure for the number of children who are doing what the headline claims they are doing. By any conceivable standards, that’s just poor reporting. Incompetently poor. So why a professional journalist would do such a thing?
Before we answer that, it’s important to say that the data seems reliable, with one caveat: it’s a survey of 11-15 year olds, and there’s a pretty huge difference between the attitudes, habits and behaviour of an 11 year-old and those of a 15 year-old. Sure, you’ve got to create your data breaks somewhere, but the Telegraph subhead about “Children as young as eleven are drinking two bottles of wine a week” is pretty disingenuous when you don’t have a breakdown of ages within the group. If 63% of all 11-15 year olds have tried alcohol at some point in their lives, I’m guessing that figure is several times higher for 15 year olds than for 11 year olds. You simply cannot draw the conclusion from the data available that any child as young as eleven is drinking as much as the Telegraph claims. They may well be. But the data as it’s presented does NOT say that they are.
(By the way – if it seems tedious that I keep referring to 11-15 year olds, it’s because that’s the age group of the survey – there’s quite a difference between ‘children’ – which is what the Telegraph are claiming the story is – and 11-15 year olds – the oldest third of all children.)
But whatever, it’s still all under-age drinking, right? Which is of course wrong (because Liam Donaldson said so, without any research or data to back up his personal belief).
So what does the “official data” referred to by the Telegraph actually say? Unsurprisingly, even a cursory look suggests quite a different picture from the one the newspaper paints:
  • The percentage of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk FELL from 55% in 2006 to 52% in 2008
  • The percentage of 11-15 year-olds who have drunk in the last week FELL from 21% in 2006 to 18% in 2008
  • The AVERAGE alcohol consumption for 11-15 year olds who have drunk alcohol is between 13 and 16 units – so not higher than safe limits for adults at all then. And as that’s an average of 11-15 year olds who have ever drunk (52%), simple maths tells you that the average for ALL 11-15 year olds must be half that – around 7-8 units.
  • Why focus on the North East? Because that’s the region where 11-15 year olds have drunk more than anywhere else. It’s not typical of the country as a whole. 63% of 11-15 year olds have drunk alcohol there, compared with only 39% in London.
  • The Telegraph correctly reports that ‘more than one in four’ 11-15 year olds in the North East have drunk in the last week. It doesn’t report that in London, this figure is only 12%. Everywhere else, it’s between the two.
  • In terms of average weekly consumption, girls marginally exceed the safe limit for women in five out of nine regions, by an amount that is within the standard margin of error quoted by statisticians. For example, in West Midlands girls drink an average of 14.2 units a week, with a standard range of error of 1.27, meaning they could be as much as 15.9 or as little as 12.5.
  • In no area of the country do boys drink an average of more than 21 units – the recommended limit for men. The Telegraph headline is therefore factually inaccurate on yet another count. In the body of the article it states where teenage girls drink too much. It doesn’t mention the figures for teenage boys because they don’t fit with the story the newspaper is fabricating – so let me say once again, IN NO REGION OF THE COUNTRY ARE 11-15 YEAR OLD BOYS DRINKING MORE THAN THE ‘SAFE’ LIMITS FOR ADULT MEN.

The headline “Children drinking more than adult safe levels” clearly suggests that the typical or average child is doing so. The “official data” emphatically shows that this is NOT the case, and also shows – like all other recent data on the subject – that under-age drinking is declining, something the Telegraph does not see fit to mention at all.

Here is a serious and incredibly well-respected newspaper deliberately distorting NHS data to create a story that is significantly more alarming than the truth. The sub-editors have taken a story the journalist has already distorted, and written a headline and sub-head that is simply not true on several counts.
Why? Do they have their own agenda? Or are they just resorting to cheap, tabloid-style sensationalism? Anyone know?



Séan Billings

What these figures also fail to take into account is that some 11-15 year olds are lying little bastards who think it is cool to claim to have been on the lash at some stage in the last week. In reality, few parents are so negligent that they would fail to notice that little Johnnie is unusually unsteady and smells of cheap booze. My 15 year old knows the horror which would result if caught boozing and I don't think I'm at all unusual in my approach to parenting.

I know there are negligent parents who don't pay attention to where their kids are and and what they are doing, but I doubt that 63% of parents in the north east of England are that negligent.

Jeff Rosenmeier

Pete said, "…Telegraph…incredibly well-respected newspaper".


Here's one idea, stop reading the newspaper. I have and it significantly reduced my rage against the machine…

Jeff Pickthall

The report and its stats should be treated with caution as there's no information on how the kids were questioned or surveyed. It would be all-too-easy to wind kids up to give inflated figures in order to provide scary stats.


Séan is of course right. I once spoke with a chap who was involved in some studies on "video nasty" watching by children back in the day. Not only had a shocking percentage been exposed to "I Spit on Your Grave", "Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS" and other "challenging" material that was around at the time, a similar proportion had also watched a number of films that my pal and his colleagues had made up in the pub the night before.
The little tykes.


Keep on at this Pete – the voice of sanity amongst the other guff and crap/lazy reporting.

For instance: Nick Robinson on his BBC blog, bigging up his radio programme by reporting as fact, without examination: "It's decision time on Britain's booze culture. Alcohol abuse is costing the country billions of pounds and robbing young people of their lives and their futures."

But this headline on Sky News webfeed on Sunday made me smile (and not just because of another Haiti victim being saved): "QUAKE SURVIVOR LIVED ON BEER FOR 11 DAYS". See? it's a livesaver!

Woolpack Dave

Absolutely agree with Séan. I allow our children to have an occasional drink. Sometimes even 2 in one evening, but only on special occasions and certainly not on a school night. I would be naive if I claimed they never had a drink outside our knowledge, but they wouldn't be able to hide a significant consumption.

Paul Bailey

I gave up reading national newspapers several years ago. They're full of sensationalist garbage, trivia, reality TV nonsense, half-truths plus government spin (and that's just the quality papers I'm talking about!).
Their proprietors are only interested in selling more copies than their rivals. There's definitely a lot of truth in the old adage of "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story".
The only thing one can believe on the front page of a newspaper is the date!
Follow my lead – you'll feel much better, and much less angry for it!

David Strange

Indeed, the real story does need to be told. It would be all too easy just to ignore these mendacious articles because we know better. However, if such stories continue to be printed and no one stands up to point out their faults the neo-prohibitionists will have free run in the press and will ultimately win the argument due to the sheer number of sensationalist articles published supporting their warped ideas. Keep these excellent posts coming, Mr Brown!

Professor Pie-Tin

My oldest is 13.
We often go to the pub together to watch rugby on TV.
He is always allowed the first sip of the first pint ( it's Ireland, it's stout and he's fascinated by the creamy head. )
Any fears of him turning into an alcoholic are quickly assuaged by his complete contempt for the half-pissed buffoons around him shouting and roaring at the television.
By the way I emailed your latest missive to Guardian media columnist and blogger Roy Greenslade.
I wonder if he'll take up the challenge ?


"are they just resorting to cheap, tabloid-style sensationalism?"

Yes. As a journo, I can say: it's what we do. It sells papers. People love being frightened, and newspapers play up to this.It's not just stories about drinking where this happens: check out the Facebook page on the Daily Mail list of things that give you cancer.

The only thing one can believe on the front page of a newspaper is the date!

Actually, I've known quite a few papers get that wrong occasionally.


I suppose the question we need to ask is 'how many people actually believe the crap they read?' None of this will do any harm if everyone takes the same attitude as us about what we read. It would be interesting to see a survey done on what readers actually accept as fact from what they are reported in all areas of the media.

Pete Brown

Guys, the point about the reliability of talking to kids is a good one. When I was at uni the – ahem – Divinity Faculty one day had a reporter outside doing s survey of student drug use. Someone went into the common room and mentioned this. Everyone sniggered. Two days later The Sun ran: '80% of trainee vicars on LSD' or some such.

The only reason I didn't enter into that in my original post is that i want to keep the actual posts as factual as possible. There are so many arguments about the positive effects of alcohol, our right to do as we please and choose our own poison, etc. Other people are making those points and I'll do so myself elsewhere. But I'm strictly debunking at the moment, and keeping it totally to facts and data to make that as credible as possible.

Also – I don't read the fucking Torygraph – or the Mail – myself. I debunk these stories when I find out about them. And I do that – rather than ignoring them – because if we all ignore them then people WILL believe this bullshit.

Jeff Renner

National Public Radio (NPR) here in the US had a report this morning from London entitled "U.K. Government Targets Binge Drinking."

Their summary: "The abuse of alcohol, primarily by young people, is one of the most pressing social issues in Britain. There have been repeated and ineffective campaigns to reduce the obsession with "binge" drinking. Now the government is coming around to accepting that one of the main factors encouraging the habit is the low price of alcohol, particularly in supermarkets, and is considering changes."

It can be heard at



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