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Why I chose not to give the media a comment on ‘the PM skolling a beer’ story

I’ve been working with the Australian media for almost 25 years now and to be quite honest, nothing really surprises me anymore! As much as I think the general public has a much greater understanding of how the media works today than in the past, we still have a long way to go before we can say that Mr and Mrs Joe Average are always able to critically evaluate a media story and not just jump in feet first and accept all of it as gospel!

A couple of weeks ago I posted the following message on my Facebook page:

“Just been asked by a ‘journalist’ what my thoughts are on the PM “pulling a Bob Hawke” – i.e., skolling a beer in 6 seconds and did I “think it sent a bad message to our young people”? I couldn’t care less what Tony Abbott does when it comes to having a drink – I’m just sick and tired of media outlets asking me if I’m ‘outraged’ when someone does something like this! Am I impressed that someone can down a glass of beer so quickly? Absolutely not! Should it be a major news story? How ridiculous …”

That was posted just after 7am, just after I received my first phone call from a radio station on the subject. Throughout the day I was contacted by reporters from television, radio and an online news service – all wanting to know my views on the Prime Minister’s drinking habits. I declined all of them. Since then I have been asked by a number of people why I made that decision, particularly because only a couple of weeks before I had been very vocal about Shane Warne’s comments after Australia won the World Cup. Why wasn’t I ‘outraged’?

Firstly, there is something that everyone needs to know when reading someone’s comments in the media about being ‘outraged’ by something … There are very few times when an ‘expert’ or some other type of social commentator actually contacts a media organisation to tell them that they’re outraged – I know I never have! What actually happens is that a journalist hears about an incident and then tries to find someone who could possibly be upset or concerned by it. This can sometimes take a fair bit of hunting! I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been asked to make such a comment (over the years I’ve been asked about things such new alcohol products, countless movies or TV shows that supposedly glamourized drug use and even an advert in a local paper selling bucket bongs) and many of those times I have had to turn around and say I wasn’t! The problem with commenting on this type of story is that all you end up actually doing is give it a longer life span, when in reality what we should actually be doing is to starve it of oxygen and kill it in its tracks!

As I said in my Facebook post, am I impressed that a 57 year-old man can skol a beer in front of a group of cheering footballers urging him on? Absolutely not! Should it get a run on the 6 o’clock news and get running commentary – I don’t believe it should. Don’t get me wrong, if the PM had done this at a formal event where he was representing the country, TV cameras all around and he was well aware that it would be picked up by the media, I would have been shouting loudly. What we actually had was a shoddy piece of video shot on a mobile phone that had been posted on Facebook. Was it a stupid thing for Abbott to have done? Of course it was, but how it ended up being a major news story (the TV news story that I saw was constructed to look like the public health lobby was up-in-arms) is beyond me! I want to make it very clear that I am not criticising anybody who did decide to make a comment on the issue – that is entirely their business – but it wasn’t for me!

Shane Warne’s comments were completely different. This is not about being a wowser – he is a famous sportsman who should know better. His comments were made on live television, with millions of people watching, many of them children. What he and the Australian cricket team do behind closed doors as far as alcohol is concerned is their business, they are adults, and it is not my place to make comment on that, but it was obvious that even the cricketers he was interviewing were feeling uncomfortable with his line of questioning that night.

When I was working at NDARC (and NCPIC) a key part of my role was to ensure that the Centre’s research findings were disseminated as widely as possible. With that in mind, I worked extremely hard over many years to build strong positive relationships with journalists and media organisations in an effort to try to ensure that important stories actually got a run, and if they did, that they were reported in a way that was responsible and were indeed a true representation of the results. To build those relationships I had to make myself available to every news outlet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and be willing to make a comment on just about anything …

Back then there were very few people who were willing to speak to the media about alcohol and other drug issues – for a very long time Dr Alex Wodak was the sole voice – and the media was keen to find others who would be able to respond in a timely way on this highly controversial topic. Not surprisingly, researchers and academics were not usually willing to make a comment about such mundane things as the possible impact of a famous sportsman being caught for drink driving on young people and whether Brad Pitt’s supposed cannabis use could lead to teens believing that pot was ‘safe’! When I think about some of the stories I have been quoted in it makes my toes curl … But if you wanted to establish a relationship with a journalist or a media outlet you had to be willing to help them with the stories that no-one else wanted to touch. Short, sharp grabs on these issues are not difficult to come up with and in reality, I just kept recycling the same old things time and time again!

In the last couple of years since I left the university I have tried to reduce the amount of media I do – I will certainly try to assist reporters that I have had a relationship with for a long time, but I am now far more likely to give them the name and contact number of someone else than opt to do the interview myself. Making media comment is a thankless task – no matter what you say you’re always going to upset someone who doesn’t like what you said, whether you actually said it or not! Even the best journalist can be edited down by subs and there have been a number of times over the years when a comment has appeared in the paper attributed to me that certainly never came out of my mouth …

There’s one more important point I’d like to make more generally … I think we have to be extremely careful when it comes to making media comment around alcohol at the moment – appearing to be outraged by each indiscretion a public figure makes in this area could be dangerous. I really do believe that we have a significant proportion of the Australian public currently on-side when it comes to making cultural change in this area, as the FARE Annual Alcohol Poll released this week suggests. That said, we do have to be careful that we don’t start to be seen as simply coming out and knocking absolutely everything to do with alcohol and the drinking culture. I believe we have to pick our battles very carefully, always remembering that alcohol is the drug of choice for many Australians … overstep the line (and it’s a fine one!) and we will be seen as wowsers and the ‘fun police’, even by those who currently support us, and once that happens it will be extremely difficult to get that invaluable support back!

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