Simon Harris in lecturing, preening, interfering mood when it comes to alcohol

Minister for Health move against Drinkaware shows he is drunk on power

The funding of Drinkaware by the alcohol industry, including Diageo and Heineken, is made clear on the website. Photograph: Getty Images

The funding of Drinkaware by the alcohol industry, including Diageo and Heineken, is made clear on the website. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris’s interference in media treatment of alcohol issues feels worse than a hangover. Just over a fortnight ago, it seems that alcohol was firmly on the Minister’s mind. It’s not that he was pickled in the stuff, like half the rest of us in our post-Christmas stasis. No. Instead it appears that, when it came to the demon drink, the Minister was in a lecturing, preening, interfering mood.

He wrote to most major media outlets in the State over Christmas and asked them to blacklist, in perpetuity, any information of any description that emanates from the alcohol industry-funded charity Drinkaware – ostensibly set up to promote responsible drinking among consumers and to warn against harmful behaviour.

Drinkaware’s critics argue that the charity is part of an alcohol industry propaganda exercise to cast responsibility for problem drinking back on to consumer behaviour. This, the critics argue, deflects from the very real health risks associated with consuming any amount of alcohol, and which provide much of the impetus for profit-harming regulatory crackdowns on the industry’s activities.

The drink sector, like all so-called “sin industries”, can at times be a master of the dark arts of PR obfuscation and subliminal public messaging. It has been criticised on these pages for such efforts many times in the past, such as its below-the-line war of attrition to water down recent laws clamping down on alcohol marketing.

It is therefore reasonable that assertions by its critics that Drinkaware is an tool of propaganda are made with a ready veneer of truthiness: that superficial sense that something sounds as if it must be true, regardless of whether it actually is or not.

But for an assertion to cross the line from merely truthy to proper truth, a modicum of evidence surely must be required. I trawled through Drinkaware’s online resources at length. I couldn’t find anything dark or misleading. No sneaky exhortations to “by all means cut down on drink, but make sure you still drink”. It was all just common-sense stuff. The benefits of drinking less. Here’s how to stop drinking altogether. Consumption guidelines sourced from relevant health authorities. That sort of thing.

The funding of Drinkaware by the industry, including Diageo and Heineken, was also made perfectly clear. Yet Harris, a politician who rarely shies away from munching the low-hanging populist fruit, saw fit to sharpen his pencil, cry foul and instruct the media on how to do its job. He did all of this while hosing us with dumb truthiness.

“It has come to my attention that some media . . . are providing the public with information from the alcohol-industry funded initiative Drinkaware,” wrote Harris. He set his concerns in the context that we live “in an era where misinformation and disinformation are challenges for our society”.

Using that sort of language, he was clearly labelling Drinkaware as fake news. But he didn’t offer any evidence of any alleged misinformation. Apparently, the mere fact that an organisation is openly funded by a sin industry should be justification enough for censoring it in the media, regardless of whether or not it says anything harmful.

Withholding information

One wonders if Harris stopped for a second to consider how appropriate it is for a senior Cabinet Minister to attempt to interfere in a free press, by pressing for collective media action to withhold information from the public.

In an effort to seem tough on the alcohol industry, the health Minister overreached by sticking his nose in. That he felt he had some moralist or populist cover to do this is irrelevant. He is a senior member of the Government. He has no business trying to rein in the speech of others.

Harris’s intervention also raises questions about how the media and the public at large should interact with certain arms of the sin industries, which includes tobacco and gambling. My view is why would anyone interested in an issue deprive themselves of information, even if that information comes from a biased source?

If you want to understand an issue, you should take your information from both sides of the argument, read everything from one extreme to the other, and all in between. Then you filter it, and you make up your own mind using your wits. You don’t censor.

In any event, who gets to decide which sin industries it is or is not acceptable to talk to? I guess it is whoever has hiked up first to occupy the moral high ground, from where Harris drafted his letter. Is aviation now a damned sin industry just because aircraft belch out climate-killing carbon? If so, does Harris’s Government colleague Shane Ross now also expect us censor any press statements from Aer Lingus and Ryanair?

Instead of repeating any of the seemingly rational advice from industry-funded Drinkaware, Harris asked the media instead to take information only from the State’s askaboutalcohol.ie initiative. The problem with this website – which is only short of linking the odd pint to an outbreak of the Black Death – is that it is deathly boring. Why would any member of the public want to read something so turgid? I’d almost need a double vodka to get through its front page.

There isn’t some sort of a dichotomy between Drinkaware and askaboutalcohol.ie. The media and the public is capable of parsing information gleaned from both resources, and assessing its usefulness or bias using basic intelligence. Nobody needs instructions on how to read from the Minister for Health. This isn’t North Korea.

FOOTNOTE

– Wednesday’s annual results briefing from IDA Ireland, the State agency responsible for attracting inward investment, was its first big set-piece media event at its swanky new headquarters at Three Park Place. The new office complex is near the National Concert Hall in a leafy district of the Dublin’s south inner city.

The contrast with IDA’s old canal-side headquarters building at Wilton Place couldn’t be more stark. The Wilton building might have been in the commercial heart of the south city, near the waterside statue of poet Patrick Kavanagh, “stilly greeny at the heart of summer”. But inside, the offices were like something from Pyongyang circa 1970.

How must executives from Google, Facebook and other high-tech US multinationals have reacted in the past whenever they went into the old IDA headquarters promising more jobs. The dreariness of it. From Ireland Inc’s point of view, it was like hooking up with a hot date before bringing them back to your bedsit, via a chipper van, for a one and one.

The new IDA offices are as sleek and millennial-friendly as anything occupied by its blue-chip client base. Funky breakout zones all over the place, coffee on draught, trendy minimalist furniture, cool colours and sleek lines everywhere. And one of the best rooftop views in the city. The State agency’s 220 Dublin staff won’t know themselves. The fit out cost about €16 million.

Then again, IDA has always known how to indulge a little. Kevin Sammon, its director of global corporate communications, reminded all the journalists present that in the good old days of yore, IDA’s annual press briefing was an all-day affair, at which the hungry hacks were served breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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