I used to have a high regard for the Portman Group, I say "used to" advisedly having seen this report in the Publican's Morning Advertiser on the long-running dispute between this 'august' trade body and Laverstoke Park Farm over the latter's label for its organic ale (pictured).
The crux of the matter is the cartoon picture of former Formula One champion Jody Scheckter drawn by his son and used in the label (Mr Scheckter is the owner of Laverstoke Park Farm) breaching the Portman Group's strict rules on imagery that might appeal to children in alcohol packaging and marketing.
After a long-running dispute the Portman Group has re-issued a retailer bulletin "requesting" retailers not to place orders for the beer in question: “Unlike many responsible producers, Mr Scheckter refuses to work with the Portman Group's free Advisory Service to ensure Laverstoke's labels comply with the rules. The Advisory Service will continue to be available to him. The Portman Group Code is supported by over 140 organisations including all the major retailers who have given their commitment to abide by the rulings of the Independent Complaints Panel. They have been requested not to place orders for the products in their current packaging after 17 May 2013.”
As I said at the start of this piece I have been a long-standing supporter of this quasi-judicial NGO and its history of alcohol awareness education, its now defunct proof of age scheme and campaigns to encourage social responsibility within the alcoholic drinks industry. However, their "vendetta" against Mr Scheckter seems to have taken on new dimensions with slurs and innuendo taking the fore.
As far as I can see, from the Laverstoke Park Farm website Jody is enjoying his retirement from motor racing in the role of 21st century "new age" gentleman farmer, his business seems to go out of its way to promote healthy organic produce ... even its ales are organic. He doesn't seem to be encouraging toddlers and small children to finish off their day at the farm and shop with a drunken binge on his lager or ale. It would seem that it is only his business acumen in getting his award winning ale to feature in Sainsbury stores that has brought this to a head.
Where was the Portman Group been when these labels were used?
Is the Portman Group so naive as to believe that a childish drawing is going to encourage children to drink beer? In a totally unscientific experiment (don't all rush to call Child Line on your speed dial) I gave a 3 year old and a 7 year old a sip of bottled ale (not Mr Scheckter's by the way) to see whether they would like it. (They were a la maison on a family visit.) Result? Two binge drinking demon spawn? No, of course not. They both turned their noses up and grimaced at the taste and smell of it and promptly demanded something more palatable to them.
Jonathon Birdwell, from the Demos think-tank, has this to say on how children develop into binge drinkers:
"Over the past three years, at Demos we have been investigating the influence that parenting style has on a child’s eventual behaviour. From character skills to the likelihood of binge drinking, the evidence is clear. Our research has found that parenting style is one of the most statistically reliable influences on children’s drinking patterns as teenagers and adults. As the government consults on a minimum unit price for alcohol, we argue that a focus on parenting could be more effective.
The equation of effective child caring is actually quite simple: high levels of warmth and affection, combined with consistent enforcement of discipline. This tough love approach leads to the best outcomes for children.
In the latest report, Feeling the Effects, quantitative data from 17,000 people found that parents’ drinking habits have a discernible impact on their childcare style and children’s own future patterns of alcohol intake. Research found the more a parent is seen to drink, the less likely they are to be an effective, ‘tough love’ carer. A mother’s level of intake, in particular, was influential, increasing the likelihood of children drinking excessively as adults."
I have for a long time wondered where the Portman Group gets its authority, for I can find no legislation, regulation, orders in council, or statutory instrument, which, puts its activities, promulgations or guide-lines into law. It operates without parliamentary scrutiny, authority or control much the same way as other private companies (such as Phonographic Performance Limited or PRS for Music, who are also well known to the pub trade).
I did, however, find this "Memorandum of Understanding" (from 2006) between the Portman Group and the Department of Health, which makes its role abundantly clear within successive administrations' broader Alcohol Reduction Harm Strategy. Of particular interest is the Section 9 Principles that "underpin" the Portman Group's activities, to wit, they "should act in the interests of the public and should undertake programmes that are, evidence based." (My underscoring).
Where is the peer reviewed, independent study definitively linking cartoon characterisations and alcohol consumption in children? If it existed, was it used in their prosecutorial submissions? Apart from the single (yes you read that correctly single) complaint relating to the offending label, where is the evidence that children have been encouraged to start drinking this, or any other beer for that matter as a result of this or other beer labels? Have the Portman Group even commissioned a study, no matter how small compared to the 17,000 in the Demos quoted study?
In the absence of its legal standing (sic) one has to ask if its moral and temporal authority is divine? It would seem so, from the heavy-handed and authoritarian stance it takes from time to time, Mr Scheckter's case being a good example. If the Portman Group wishes to continue to be taken seriously as a valued partner in society's efforts to encourage responsible drinking and drinks retailing, then taking on such a high profile "prosecution" is somewhat self-defeating as the general public, in which I include myself, will think that the Nanny State (including its unofficial agencies) has gone too far. Let's not even get started on how out of touch the Judge was who presided over the case.
As Voltaire was oft to say, "with great power comes great responsibility", or was it Stan Lee? Anyways, whoever said it first, the Portman Group should learn to exercise both before it launches any similar actions in the future.
In the mean-time, I'm off to hitch up the horses and don my child-catcher costume and lure kiddiwinks into the nearest pub armed with only a bottle of Laverstoke Park Farm's Organic Ale ... mwoah-ha-ha!
(P.S. The pump clip images come from the tegestologists' favourite The Pump Clip Museum an online resource for all things relating to beer pump clips.)