Another obesity propaganda show

Posted on November 1, 2016

'What happened to the government's pledge to tackle childhood obesity?' asked the latest edition of Channel 4's Dispatches last night. The answer should have been 'far too much'. But there was fat chance of that happening. 

The plan, two years in the making, was finally launched in August. It includes some extraordinary measures, including the previously announced tax on sugary drinks and the promise to reduce the sugar content of foods by 20 per cent over the next four years. In essence, the powers that be in Whitehall will be strong-arming food producers into changing the content of our food and making sure we get charged more for drinking the wrong things. 

By international standards, the government's childhood obesity policy must now be among the most dictatorial in the world. The latest plans sit alongside bans on advertising the 'wrong' foods during children's programming, plus more measures to encourage physical exercise and the much-vaunted revamp of school meals promoted by Jamie Oliver, with all the packed lunch inspections and mass weighing of children that went with it. 

Yet as we noted when the plan was launched, no set of policies could ever be enough for the health zealots. Monday night's Dispatches was built on the flimsy premise that the plan published in August had been watered down once Theresa May became prime minister. In what ways exactly? By toning down policies on supermarket promotions, removing caveats about the ability of physical exercise to reduce weight, not pursuing further advertising bans (yet) and removing a bizarrely specific target to reduce childhood obesity rates by 50 per cent in the next 10 years. (Governments may control many things, but being able to determine exactly what proportion of children are deemed too fat isn't one of them.) 

Nobody in their right mind could think that the softening of these policies - often for the simple reason that they are impractical - will have any significant impact on waistlines or health. Indeed, it is doubtful that any of the policies that have survived this mini-cull will have much of an effect, either. For example, we simply don't consume enough sugary drinks as a population for a tax of 20 per cent to make much if any difference to obesity, though such a tax will make a small but appreciable dent in our wallets. 

Not that you would have got that message from Dispatches, because the programme simply omitted to talk to anyone with an alternative point of view. The four main interviewees were Jamie Oliver (obesity campaigner), Dr Aseem Malhotra (anti-sugar campaigner), Professor Graham McGregor (anti-sugar and anti-salt campaigner) and James Cracknell (anti-obesity campaigner). Not a sceptical note was to be heard, just the same old talking heads that hackish and scaremongering Dispatches always turns to. 

Meanwhile, some more obvious opportunities to tackle obesity were missed. Presenter Antony Barnett talked to Scott and Jodie, the parents of two young daughters, about their own weight problems and their fears for their children growing up with the same bad habits that they have developed. Yet they were hardly emblems of an obesity crisis. Scott did indeed turn out to be mildly obese, but Jodie's body mass index (BMI) was average and not so long ago would have been regarded as within the 'normal' range, not even 'overweight'. The pair complained that something needed to be done about obesity to save their children while buying multi-packs of crisps and eating pizza for dinner. 

This seemed to be an abdication of responsibility for their own lives. In short, they were arguing that choice should be taken away from everyone because they could not choose responsibly themselves. They should have been embarrassed at this admission, yet they allowed themselves to be used to promote yet more restrictions on everyone's choices. 

Dispatches is produced by a publicly owned broadcaster, yet felt no need to provide any kind of balance in its presentation of the issue, not even pointing out that childhood obesity rates have been flat or even falling for a decade. It is not obesity but the one-sided discussion of health issues that is really sickening.