Gordon Campbell on how lobbying works

Remember when the Law Commission was worried that young women were the prime targets of alcohol industry RTD alcopop advertising and promotion? Remember when the media was full of shocked (shocked!!!) stories about excessive alcohol consumption by young women? Remember when the long-departed Justice Minister Simon Power had a bill that aimed to ban from liquor stores the sale of RTDs containing more than 5% alcohol content? By late July that limit on RTD alcohol content had already been pushed up to 6% by liquor industry lobbying. Here’s NBR in late July in a story significantly headlined “Financial stakes high as liquor bill targets RTDs.”

Submissions from the industry, which also includes Lion and Independent Liquor as large makers and distributors of RTDs, have so far managed to up the bill’s proposed maximum level of alcohol allowed from 5% ABV (alcohol by volume) to 6%. Higher strength drinks would still be permitted in bars and restaurants. But the ban on selling the higher alcoholic strength drinks or in amounts more than 1.5 standard drinks through liquor stores remains.

Clearly, something had to be done about that last item, if the liquor industry was still going to be able to profitably target young women. The lobby machine really swung into action:

Top-level lobbying last week saw the heads of four multinational spirits companies – Bacardi, Beam, Brown-Forman and Diageo – meet Justice Minister Judith Collins, who is responsible for the Alcohol Reform Bill.

And the outcome of that heavyweight pressure? Happy days. The government has caved in, and the liquor industry – clearly responsible corporate citizens in all their works and ways – has been allowed to self regulate.

”The Government has decided to give the alcohol industry the opportunity to introduce its own measures to limit the harm to young people caused by RTDs,” Collins said.

”The industry has offered to put in place a voluntary code on RTDs. If the industry measures are ineffective, Government has the ability to take action through a regulation-making power in the bill. This allows restrictions on the sale of RTDs at any time in the future.”

Reportedly, RTDs comprise 12 per cent of the alcohol market by volume, and as many as 180 million alcopops are sold annually. They range between 5 to 12 per cent alcohol by volume, and most of them are sold in liquor stores. So far, the only offers at self regulation by the liquor industry have been to voluntarily restrict the alcohol content of RTDs to two standard drinks – or 8% in alcohol content. What a joke. So much for Crusher Collins. Perhaps these days, we should be calling her Shaken and Stirred Collins instead?

Climate change denial
Well, here’s a new way of dealing with climate change and rising sea levels: legislate against them. When a scientific panel assessed that parts of the North Carolina coastline are facing a likely one metre rise in sea levels by 2100, Republican legislators proposed a bill that would outlaw such estimates of accelerated climate change within any local government plans to cope with rising sea levels. As the Charlotte Observer newspaper reported earlier this year:

Several local governments on the coast have passed resolutions against sea-level rise policies….Republican legislators went further. They circulated a bill that authorizes only the coastal commission to calculate how fast the sea is rising. It said the calculations must be based only on historic trends – leaving out the accelerated rise that climate scientists widely expect this century if warming increases and glaciers melt.

Longtime East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs, a science panel member who studies the evolution of the coast, said the one meter estimate is squarely within the mainstream of research.

“We’re throwing this science out completely, and what’s proposed is just crazy for a state that used to be a leader in marine science,” he said of the proposed legislation. “You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.”

Indeed. The ability of the Republican Party to live in climate change denial is about to be put to the test as Hurricane Isaac prepares to descend on the Republican Convention in Tampa, Florida. Several US news outlets have already picked up on the delicious prospect of the largest gathering of climate change deniers on the planet having a ferocious tropical storm hammering on their convention centre roof just as they anoint Mitt Romney as their champion to win back the White House. Can God possibly be sending a message?

At the very least, science may be sending some kind of message, via Hurricane Isaac. As this recent survey of the evidence for climate change and related perceptions suggests, the outlook is not re-assuring:

The most useful base period, we suggest, is one representative of the climate to which life on Earth is adapted. Paleoclimate data show that global temperature has been quite stable for a long period, more than ten thousand years, the Holocene period (Fig. 5, (6)). However, [citation] argues that the climate of the most recent few decades must be warmer than prior Holocene levels, given the fact that the major ice sheets in both hemispheres are presently losing mass rapidly and global sea level is rising at a rate of more than 3 m/millennium, much greater than at any time in the past several thousand years…

Changes of global temperature are likely to have their greatest practical impact via effects on the hydrologic cycle. Amplification of hot, dry conditions by global warming is expected, based on qualitative considerations. For example, places experiencing an extended period of high atmospheric pressure develop dry conditions, which we would expect to be amplified by global warming and by ubiquitous surface heating due to elevated greenhouse gas amounts. The other extreme of the hydrologic cycle, unusually heavy rainfall and floods, is also expected to be amplified by global warming. The amount of water vapor that the atmosphere holds increases rapidly with atmospheric temperature, and thus a warmer world is expected to have more rainfall occurring in more extreme events. What were “100-year” or “500-year” events are expected to occur more frequently with increased global warming. Rainfall data reveal significant increases of heavy precipitation over much of Northern Hemisphere land and in the tropics (3) and attribution studies link this intensification of rainfall and floods to human- made global warming…ete etc.

Will the Republicans get the message? Unlikely. Locally, Act Party leader John Banks recently told Radio Rhema that he believes the account of Creation in the book of Genesis is something that he holds to be literal truth…Isn’t it high time that Banks put Act’s dwindling band of supporters to work on building an Ark?

Speed, And the Margin for Error
As competition to be the first site with the news becomes more intense – and that’s measured now in seconds, not minutes – the potential for making editorial mistakes increases. Over the past month, ABC News has become the poster child for haste-generated news error. Last week, ABC rushed to claim that the suicide leap by film director Tony Scott from a Los Angeles bridge had been motivated by inoperable brain cancer – and that news was flashed around the world before it was found to be dead wrong. Despite ABC having attributed its story to “a source close to the family’ the family itself flatly denied it. Ironically, Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood gossip site proved to be one of the few outlets that refused to run with the inoperable brain cancer story, until it had been confirmed by the family.

You could maybe forgive ABC for buckling just this one time to the pressure of coming up with a “Why had he done it?’ story. Except within the past month they’d done something similar twice before. In the wake of the Batman movie theatre killings in Colorado ABC had rushed to Facebook and identified the wrong James Holmes as the shooter, and linked him erroneously to someone with the same name in the Tea Party. ABC also wrung a story out of the real James Holmes’ mother, by calling her on the phone to ask if she was a woman who had a son called James, and when she replied: “You’ve got the right person” ABC News then spun that quote to make it sound as if Holmes was such a monster, he was being turned upon by his own mother. Belatedly, Mrs Holmes was allowed to ‘clarify” that she had actually been merely identifying herself, and not passing judgement on her son.

We’re likely to be seeing more of this as news becomes instant, and getting the story first makes cross-checking confirmation a luxury. Besides being citizen journalists, we are now more than ever becoming our own citizen fact checkers.