Inside Track by John Harrington There was a time when news of a forthcoming Panorama documentary on alcohol was met with a combination of fear and heavy groans from the industry. We all know the cliches. Tanked-up men throwing fists outside nightclubs. Scantily-clad young women, head in hands, slurring their words to paramedics. Footage of pints being drunk in a “vertical drinking” bar, followed by an interview with a concerned doctor bemoaning the binge drinking “epidemic” and declaring that Something Has To Be Done. It’s easy to dismiss such programmes as more-of-the-same, industry-bashing Daily Mail fodder. But, like it or not, they have a tendency to frame the debate; more so, unfortunately, than a thousand press releases or initiatives from the industry (perhaps the fact it’s on the BBC makes it seem less partial than a rant from a mid-market tabloid). An especially vicious attack on the pub and club industry by Panorama in 2004 turned up the heat on the then-Labour Government, encouraging ministers to seemingly backtrack from the de-regulatory stance of the Licensing Act before it was even implemented. Remember Alcohol Disorder Zones? In some respects, the latest Panorama show on alcohol, broadcast last week, followed a familiar line. Statistics, contested by the trade, were presented on the damage being caused by heavy drinking and the cost of the NHS, and the industry was unfavourably (and unfairly) depicted as not doing enough to fix the problem. There’s undoubtedly concern in the industry at the timing of the broadcast, a few weeks before the Coalition releases its long-awaited Alcohol Strategy, which could influence ministers to take a tougher line. But there were key differences. Firstly, it has gained more publicity than normal by virtue of the fact that its presenter was Tony Blair’s former communications chief Alastair Campbell. Notably, Campbell, who recalled his own battle with alcohol addiction in the show, gave his view that he opposed the Licensing Act introduced by his boss in 2005. But more importantly, the target had changed. Rather than blaming the pub and club industry, Campbell pointed to the culture of home drinking among middle class professionals. “The issue is largely about price,” he explained. “Pubs charge a lot for a pint. Supermarkets don’t. It is a sad paradox that the decline in pubs has come alongside what seems to be a rise in drinking and alcohol-related problems.” Even Ian Gilmore, the high-profile and influential anti-alcohol campaigner, admitted on the programme that he regretted the decline of the pub. The zeitgeist has shifted significantly over the past few years. Pubs - or, at least, traditional community pubs - have been cast as the victim of Britain’s changing drinking culture, not the cause of it. Subsequently, politicians have gone out of their way to make the right noises in favour of the ‘local’. Witness the fact an Early Day Motion in Parliament supporting community pubs has been supported by 276 MPs to date, making it the most popular of any EDM in the current Parliament. Sometimes this sentiment translates into action, for example, the decision to exempt community pubs from the late night levy. As welcome as this is, it does point to a danger if the Government takes a broadbrush approach to the on-trade; ‘community pubs good, other pubs bad’ is inconsistent and illogical, and could cause problems for the industry down the line. So, where does all this leave the Alcohol Strategy? While the possibility of new ideas being dreamt up in Whitehall can never be dismissed, the signs are that the Government is going to stand by its voluntary approach under the Responsibility Deal, albeit with extra commitments from the industry. Given the torrent of leaks and mixed messages over the past couple of weeks, I’d bet that even officials and ministers haven’t worked out exactly what’s going in the Strategy. But what is clear is that, unlike the dark days of media coverage about the industry in the mid-2000s, pubs and clubs can be cautiously optimistic that they aren’t in the main line of fire. And, whisper it, perhaps Alastair Campbell will deserve some of the credit.

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