Life through a distorting lens

By Roger Protz

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: St albans, Good beer guide, Beer, Campaign for real ale, Oldham

Protz: good cheer doesn't impress Panorama
Protz: good cheer doesn't impress Panorama
The BBC's Panorama programme on Oldham's drinking scene was no better than tabloid television, says Roger Protz.

I hope you watched that brilliant BBC Panorama programme last week, the one about sensible drinking.

The presenter and film crew spent a week at the Great British Beer Festival in London, shooting 64,000 people drinking beer in moderate quantities and failing to get drunk, fight, vomit or reveal their bums to the outside world.

Away from the main hall at Earl's Court, the Panorama team filmed a series of tutored beer tastings hosted by beer writers Jeff Evans, Tim Webb, Kirrily Waldhorn from Australia and some cove called Protz. Large and appreciative audiences sipped and savoured small glasses of beer while the writers spoke about different beer styles and the range of aromas and flavours created by careful blending of malts and hops.

The festival was not only an enormous success but was also a testimony to the fact that most beer drinkers can consume their favoured tipple without threatening to bring down civilised society. So congratulations to Panorama for such a balanced and fair coverage of a major annual event.

Except, of course, I've made all that up. It didn't happen. Neither Panorama nor the BBC in general came anywhere near the festival. It wouldn't fit the corporation's belief that alcohol is threatening the very fabric of Britain. Every six months or so, it's compelled to devote an entire programme to a one-sided and outrageously distorted image of drinking in Britain.

Coming to a street near to you

The BBC has a charter that forces it to show balance and impartiality in its coverage. The charter goes out of the window where pubs and alcohol are concerned. Last week's edition of Panorama was the third in 18 months devoted to the evils of alcohol.

The programme denied that last week's edition was yet again about binge drinking and was concerned with the subject of happy hours.

But once more we were treated to the degrading spectacle of young people downing copious amounts of alcohol, with behaviour in the streets that I need not describe in inglorious detail.

The programme chose one street in Oldham. It was not a happy picture. Neither was it typical. The presenter, Richard Bilton, said that what took place in a single street in Oldham "was coming to a street near you." Like the audience at a Christmas pantomime, let's all shout: "Oh, no it's not!"

This single street was packed not with pubs but with bars and nightclubs. Alcohol — wine and spirits as well as beer — was sold at heavily-discounted prices to attract customers in. The results were appalling. But to suggest that this was typical of the rest of Britain insults the intelligence. It's not even typical of Oldham.

The Good Beer Guide lists two pubs in the town. The Ashton Arms on Clegg Street is described as a "friendly freehouse situated opposite the old town hall, within the conservation area of Oldham. Seven, superb constantly-changing real ales are served. The pub specialises in local micros and seasonal ales, and welcomes new and established breweries."

The second pub is a Robinson's house, the Royal Oak on Manchester Road where "this popular community local features wood panelling, old-fashioned cast-iron radiators and an antique Gledhill cash register. A folk group meets here on Sunday."

The pubs are a world removed from the street filmed by Panorama. Which is the more typical? I would suggest the pubs in the Good Beer Guide. But that image of traditional pubs serving communities with good cheer and good beer doesn't suit the editors of Panorama.

They use a distorted prism to show a horrific picture of drinking that could have come from Hogarth's hideous drawing of Gin Lane in the 18th century.

Put to the test

In spite of a late sideswipe at the supermarkets, the main thrust of Panorama was that not just happy hours but the 2006 Licensing Act were to blame for the chronic state of affairs in Oldham.

I put the new licensing laws to the test last Saturday night in my home city of St Albans. Before the new law came in to effect, St Albans did have a problem with drinking. It has half the population of Oldham, but a lot of pubs — close to 60.

Most of the pubs are crammed into the city centre. When they all shut at 11pm on Friday and Saturday nights, sensible people stayed at home. Over-beered people poured out of the pubs and mayhem followed.

Late last Saturday night, when I drove through the centre of St Albans, the pubs were busy, but there were no marauding crowds on the streets, "doing the circuit". The pubs stagger their closing times. The 11pm swill and mass exit is a thing of the past.

So, Richard Bilton and the editors at Panorama, come to St Albans and most other town and city centres at the weekend.

You will find a different image to that offered by just one street in Oldham, packed not with pubs but with bars and nightclubs.

The BBC won't show a positive image because it doesn't suit the corporation's agenda. Panorama, once a respected flagship BBC news programme, is now no better than the red-top tabloids and their wild distortions.

The beleaguered British pub needs and deserves better.

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