The media column - Peter Wilby asks: does anyone like g2?

Almost everyone seems to dislike the <em>Guardian</em>'s g2 section. The covers, once devoted to a s

By the time you read this, the new licensing laws will have come into force. You will have been kept awake all night by drunken carousing; your daughter will have been raped on her way home from church choir practice; the pavement outside your home will be caked with vomit; as you go to work, you will stumble over the prone bodies of binge drinkers and the bloodied victims of louts wielding broken bottles. That, at any rate, is roughly what the press has predicted.

Why have newspapers campaigned so ferociously against what they inaccurately call "24-hour drinking"? The Daily Mail has been in the lead. On 16 November, it had a front-page splash and two inside spreads: one showed a young woman sprawled on a bench, bottles by her side; another showed two 14-year-old girls who, in two hours, were served "enough alcohol to put them in a coma". Next day, Tony Booth, Cherie's father and a reformed alcoholic, was wheeled out to tell his son-in-law "you're wrong". "Marriages will be wrecked, children will be neglected and family bank accounts will be drained," he warned.

The offensive continued in the Sundays. The Sunday Times unearthed a report predicting "a £500m alcohol binge" as a result of late licences. Since this report was compiled for a pub company in order to attract investors, it would, wouldn't it? The Sunday Express warned that drunks would swamp hospital casualty departments. Even the Independent on Sunday - which you would expect to stay, so to speak, steady on its feet - had an 11-page special "booze review". This insisted that drinking the equivalent of ten pints of beer in nine hours over one night (quite slow going for some people I know) would lead to testicular shrinkage, brain damage, heart irregularities, anaemia, mouth cancer and pancreatitis.

All this may seem surprising. The press derives substantial revenue from drinks advertising. Papers such as the Mail often criticise lefties as joyless spoilsports while berating Labour for excessive regulation. But in the newspapers' Manichaean world, their readers are respectable folk battling against the forces of chaos and barbarism. Anarchy is always on the doorstep and one needs to be vigilant, preferably by buying papers that keep you informed of the latest perils.

As Rod Liddle wrote in the Sunday Times, the middle classes drink to be sociable, the workers to get pissed. The former may drink when they like - at private dinner parties in Georgian houses, at posh restaurants and in exclusive clubs, for example. The latter should drink only at specified times and well away from middle-class folk. A Sunday Telegraph leader criticised ministers for abandoning old Labour's commitment to keeping "the working man . . . away from fecklessness".

Other commentators have noted that, while Continentals can cope with drink at all hours, the English can't. But the middle classes manage on their holidays in Tuscany. What the commentators mean is that the lower classes can't cope.

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, writing in the Independent, has announced that he sees the Berliner-style Guardian as a "possible resting place" for a High Tory reader such as himself, disillusioned with the Telegraph and the Times. Given that Worsthorne is a lifelong Telegraph man, and a former editor of its Sunday paper, this is a landmark, suggesting swift success for the ambition of the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, to turn it into the new establishment paper.

Despite initial reservations, I too now like the Berliner design, and can see why it might appeal to Worsthorne. There is something calm but also challenging about it. Reading it, I feel good about myself. I imagine myself perusing it thoughtfully, like a central European intellectual, in one of those wood-panelled Viennese cafes.

The new g2 is a different matter. Almost everybody seems to dislike it. Its brand has been diluted. The covers, once devoted to a single story with an image that demanded attention, are now unremarkable. Inside, the longer pieces have lost impact. I hear that Ian Katz, the section's editor, mindful of these criticisms, is planning changes.

I hope the results are successful. But my fear remains that Rusbridger will find insufficient refugee Tories and aspirant Viennese intellectuals to keep circulation buoyant.

I have written here before about journalists' innumeracy. Coverage of the proposal to raise the pension age to 67 - leaked from Lord Turner's Pensions Commission - provides a priceless example. The Mail and the Telegraph both reported that one in five men and one in eight women who reach 65 will die before 67 and would therefore, under the proposal, miss out on a state pension. A moment's thought should tell you the figures must be wrong. If men expired at that rate, they would all be dead by 75 - and there'd be no pensions crisis in the first place. The true figures are one in 29 men and one in 48 women.

Turner's commission says it is important to use statistics accurately in this debate. Some hope.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Apartheid