This Is No Way For Adults To Discuss Alcoholism

by | Apr 6, 2016

One of the problems of living in the age of social media is that the world of the tabloids can encroach into your carefully curated sphere at any time. When news came on paper, perhaps as much of it as you’d ever see would be the occasional front page in a newsagents whilst picking up your own chosen morning read, but nowadays the tabloids are in your Twitter timelines or your Facebook feed, whether you like it or not, clogging up the arteries of our brains with the saturated fat that makes up their streams of “stories.”

This hasn’t come about by accident. These newspapers know fully well what they’re doing, and they also know that by continuing to print Outrageous Views that will offend The Right People, they can ensure that people who would prefer to live their lives without the intrusion of their rags will be left with little choice to consume them at some point or other. Somebody or other – and we’re all guilty of this, I know I am – will retweet Katie Hopkins saying something terrible that she will make some money from saying, and another iota of our own humanity will drain away.

When he produced How Video Games Changed The World in 2012, Charlie Brooker placed Twitter at number one in his chronological list of the twenty-five most significant games in history, his rationale being that the accumulation of “likes” and “retweets” is really little more than a game in itself. By and large, much – although by no means all – of this is harmless enough diversion, a twenty-first century pantomime with its own rituals, though less civility. Sometimes, though, we are invited to gawp in places where we shouldn’t be looking by people who pretend to care about those who are suffering to varying degrees but are really primarily interested in our eyeballs rather than the well-being of their subjects.

Twice over the course of the last couple of weeks or so, the football-consuming public have been invited by the tabloid press, through crocodile tears that only thinly disguise their glee at it all, to peer into the private hell of two former professional footballers whose post-career lives have been shot to pieces by alcohol. Paul Gascoigne created one of the most enduring mental imagines of the 1990 World Cup finals and scored one of the defining goals in the last fifty years of the England national team. Kenny Sansom played eighty-six times for England and was their first choice left-back for eight years. And now, when they’re ill and in need of help and assistance, newspapers who so frequently claim to be bastions of patriotism don’t do anything more than rubberneck at the car crashes that their lives have become.

Where do you start with the likes of The Daily Mail and The Sun? Well, you start by making it clear that, whilst these two particular organs swim in a trough of slurry that is uniquely theirs, it only takes a cursory search of Google to establish that there are few news organisations that haven’t dipped at least a toe into these foul-smelling waters. The Mail and The Sun, however, do often seem to inhabit a separate plane of unpleasantness when it comes to this sort of behaviour. In the case of The Mail, it was using photographs taken by someone who had been following Sansom around taking photographs of him, and writing a lengthy story on the subject with lurid sub-headings such as “Sansom then ‘stumbled around supermarket before drinking outside'”, whilst The Sun went with a photograph of Gascoigne’s cut and bloodied face, tales of his recent demeanour and, particularly unhelpfully, the thoughts of Dr Carol Cooper, their “resident doctor”, whose comment on the subject was to say, “I fear he’s too far gone” and that, “The final whistle can’t be far away.”

It took Daniel Taylor in The Guardian, in a more sympathetically weighted piece about this awful situation to point out that this sort of bullshit is “exactly the sort of thing a doctor should not say – especially when the patient might be reading it.” Why, though, would Dr Carol Cooper be worried about this? After all, according to her own website, “her role is to provide instant quotes.” She was doing this in 2013 as well, though, opining that it was “unlikely Paul is suffering from withdrawal” from her desk in London as Gascoigne was being treated for his addiction in Arizona. But hey, I’m not a medical expert. Perhaps you really can offer accurate medical diagnoses and prognoses based on a general understanding of the condition – because, let’s face it, there are never any variations between those who struggle with alcoholism – and staring at a few photographs of the patients concerned.

The Samaritans have published a Best Practice document for journalists writing about suicide. There isn’t an equivalent for alcoholism – so far as we’re aware – but it shouldn’t be difficult for newsrooms to be able to boil down an approximation of the same for stories concerning people who are in vulnerable positions on account of their addictions. It shouldn’t need to be said, but there should be guidelines that everybody can follow which combine the ability to produce new stories on sensitive subjects such as this – because following former professional footballers around and snapping them at their most disheveled is, if distasteful, only one way in which alcoholism or any form of addiction may be reported in the press – whilst understanding the sensitivity of the situation for those concerned. Does it have to be this difficult? To quickly perm half a dozen phrases from the Samaritans’ guide and tweak them slightly to come with something that might actually do some good from a horrible situation:

  • Your story might have an effect on vulnerable individuals or people connected to the subject of the story.
  • It is important not to brush over the complex realities of alcohol addiction and its devastating impact on those left behind.
  • A sensitive piece might explore the emotional devastation of alcohol addiction on family and friends, and may prompt people who believe themselves to be at risk to seek help.
  • Whenever possible, try to refer to the wider issues associated with alcohol addiction, such as risk factors like low levels of self-esteem, high levels of stress, or peer pressure.
  • Reporting death as a result of alcohol addiction as a tragic waste and an avoidable loss is more beneficial in preventing further deaths.

Perhaps such common decency is too much to expect from our tabloid press, but that doesn’t mean that we have to join them in the gutter. Kenny Sansom and Paul Gascoigne were both fine footballers with playing careers that we should recall with considerable fondness. We are but onlookers against their ongoing problems, but we should take the opportunity to think of them, to wish them well, and to consider every day that they do remain clean to be a success rather than the occasions when they’re unable to do so to be a let down, and to continue to hope that they will overcome and eventually cast off this weight around their necks. They deserve better than the “treatment” that they have been handed by the British tabloid press, because that is no “treatment” at all.

Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, you can call this free helpline, in complete confidence, on 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am – 8pm, weekends 11am – 4pm). 

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