Monthly Archives: February 2014

Sweet intoxication of prejudice confirmed

I nearly drank some Buckfast once.

In the name of journalism I decided ten years or so ago I should find out for myself what it was about the brown-bottled concoction that had become shorthand among police, politicians and stand up comedians for street drunkenness and violence.

By reputation it provided the quickest route to daily oblivion for many Scots who didn’t want to take too long about it.

I got as far as taking a swig but couldn’t actually make myself swallow it. My gag reflex wasn’t that enthusiastic about what in the old days was called new journalism.

Nevertheless I remained curious how and why ‘Buckie’ had become individually identified as being particularly responsible for so much harm while remaining legal.

Along with everyone else I had heard the much cited Strathclyde Police statistic that it had been mentioned in more than 5,000 crime reports over a period of three years.

Wow, that was a lot. Or was it?

And what precisely did ‘mentioned’ mean?

Still in the name of journalism I submitted some FOI questions to Strathclyde Police last February that I hoped would elicit some explanation and context.

First, the context. The FOI answers clarified that in the three year period in question, 2007 – 2010, the force had recorded 955,708 crimes and offences.

“The term ‘Buckfast’ was found to appear in the free text summary field of 5,973 of these crimes and offences.”

Just over half of one per cent.

The FOI officer very helpfully explained the reference to ‘free text summary field’: “Crime reports contain a free text summary field which can be searched electronically. The field is short, with a maximum of 254 characters in length permitted. The summary field is necessarily a brief description of events and is searchable. This field was interrogated for the following terms ‘BUCKFAST’, ‘Buckfast’ and ‘buckfast’.”

I asked if the free text summary fields [just over a tweet and a half worth of text] had been searched for any other alcohol brands or generic terms.

“Other terms were also searched. Each was searched using UPPER CASE, Proper Case and lower case variants. These included ‘Alcohol’ (69,773 hits out of 955,708), ‘Vodka’ (2,339), ‘Whisky’ (820), ‘Beer’ (3,394), ‘Lager’ (6,023), ‘Cider’ (4,124), ‘Merrydown’ (141) and ‘Tennents’ (1,615).”

So lager actually came out ahead of Buckfast. I haven’t heard any calls for it to be subjected to additional controls or special (no pun intended) police attention being paid to those who sell it.

Of course, I note that the vast majority of the reports that mention alcohol do not specify any particular brand or generic product so there is no way of knowing whether the distribution of each of the above would be replicated across all 69,733 mentions. Or, thanks to confirmation bias, whether the notorious ones are disproportionately more likely to be specified. Their share of the 69,733 mentions might actually be less. That is, might police have been more likely to mention Buckfast because of its reputation?

I note also in passing my surprise that relatively few of the reports mentioned alcohol at all given the conventional wisdom that so much of crime in Scotland is alcohol related. 69,733 mentions is less than 7% of the total.

Given the above information, I was not taken by surprise yesterday when it was announced that Police Scotland had settled out of court the court of session case brought against it by Buckfast’s distributors, J Chandler & Co.

The Police apologised to Buckfast for the actions of an individual officer who tried to stop a retailer from stocking the tonic wine.

They also apologised for any “distress or inconvenience” caused to the shopkeeper and promised not to target Buckfast in this way again.

In a written undertaking, Assistant Chief Constable Wayne Mawson said the police “will not request licensed retailers, situated anywhere in Scotland, to cease stocking for sale Buckfast Tonic Wine”.

It will have been an expensive stand off for both sides and despite the decorous language by both parties the settlement is an embarrassment to Police Scotland.

It was a bit of a  misjudgment in the first instance by whichever officer it was who thought it was a good idea to search for Buckfast. It was a far bigger error by, presumably, more senior officers to ignore not only the results the search threw up but also the utterly flawed methodology of the search in the first place. The statistic should have been binned, not published.

I am more concerned by the willingness of so many commentators and politicians up to ministerial level to accept the wobbly statistic and repeat it. And even top it by advocating a new concept of product specific policing policy based on it.

It was as if a product that is believed on the streets to offer the quickest route to oblivion is the problem to be addressed rather than the desire for such speedy oblivion of so many of our citizens.

I know there are few experiences quite as intoxicating as a prejudice confirmed but I am concerned that so much of current Scottish political discourse is driven by beliefs in search of evidence.

My toast is for more curiosity, more scepticism and less desperation always to find someone to blame.