Deflating the Big Fat Lie with Big Fat Facts

Anna Soubry, Minister for Public Health, says she can tell somebody's background just by looking at their weight. Such claims are not evidence-based, they are prejudice-based, and shouldn't be allowed to inform policy.

Yesterday Anna Soubry, Minister for Public Health, made some comments. As is the fashion these days, they were directed at poor people. Or rather, they were directed at rich people, who like to read about poor people and nod along.

Soubry explained how she “can almost now tell somebody’s background by their weight” when she walks around her constituency. She expressed surprise at the fact “there are houses where they don’t any longer have dining tables. They will sit in front of the telly and eat.” She spoke of her horror at seeing parents buying their children fast food and concluded that poor people should be more disciplined about teaching their children proper table manners.

The springboard for this tirade was a set of government figures which “showed that 24.3 per cent of the most deprived 11 year-olds in England were obese, compared with just 13.7 per cent of children from the wealthiest homes”. A highly selective sample – with no definition about what “most deprived” or “wealthiest homes” might include, looking at children of a very specific age.

In an unusual move, I shall try to intrude in this debate with – gasp! – some facts. An analysis of the most recent and most comprehensive set of figures, collated by the Department of Health, concludes that there is no obvious relationship between obesity and income. The groups with the lowest levels of obesity are poor men and rich women.

The dataset also strongly suggests that there is no obvious relationship between obesity and social class.

Now there is some evidence to suggest that there is a problem, specifically with children, looking at the same data. Currently 6.9 per cent of boys and 7.4 per cent of girls are obese - with the difference between the lower and higher classes 0.6 per cent and 1.5 per cent respectively for boys and girls.

However, there is a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon between a study showing that a variation of values between 0.6 per cent and 1.5 per cent is beginning to emerge in children and the Minister for Public Health saying she can tell poor people's background just by looking at them because they're fat. And then going on to criticise them for not having dining tables – gosh, these people are animals!

It is not so long ago, I had to subsist on a bag of frozen fish fingers (40 for £2), two loaves of value bread (42p) and a bottle of cheap ketchup (31p) for twelve days. I remember it well. I remember the panic of running out towards the end and beginning to make my daily sandwich with three - not four – fish fingers, to make them stretch. So, when some affluent minister in a position of power, sits on her perfect Laura Ashley clad arse, in her perfect Laura Ashley dining room (paid for by our taxes), in her pink Laura Ashley life, and criticises me for not giving that splendid, nutritious meal the ceremony it deserves with a candlelit setting, I get very, very, very annoyed.

Soubry’s target is what she sees as bad parenthood and misinformed choices by poor people. Her comments about dining tables ignore the rising trend of limited affordable housing, with limited space in it, especially in urban areas. Her insufferable arrogance of condemning a parent buying their kid a MacDonalds, goes directly to her prejudice. Was it a rare treat? Was it a regular thing? Did she stalk this parent for a month to observe the family’s nutritional habits? Do you, when you make similar judgements?

The subtext of her solution – the only thing to do is speak to manufacturers – is steeped in the presumption that "these people are too thick to do the right thing, so we have to tackle it at the source".

Her understanding of the issues is derived from years of a sustained tabloid campaign to portray poor people as idle, fat, lazy, stupid, ignorant slobs, responsible for their own demise. And, possibly, a DVD box-set of The Royle Family. Once the premise is established in one's mind, of course, it is very easy to walk around a poor area and identify examples which confirm it. But that doesn't make it evidence and the policies which result from it are not evidence-based. They are prejudice-based.

For every poor fat woman she sees (and judges) on a high-street, there are two of regular weight, an undernourished person in the queue at the job center, an emaciated pensioner who has to chose between heat and food, and plenty of incredibly fit people who clean others’ houses and build others’ conservatories. Anna Soubry just notices them less. Perhaps she wants to. The evidence and statistics actually do not support her position. She is just airing her own anecdotes.

Critically, she does so, while her government dispenses with school dinners and closes health centres, public libraries and local swimming pools. Those are the real, the shocking facts, Ms Soubry.

There is conclusive evidence linking poverty to poor nutrition, which brings terrible health problems and a reduced life expectancy. So, in fact, the only way for Anna Soubry to effectively poor-people-spot would be to observe someone for a very long time and see if, having suffered insult and condescension by her miserable government at every turn, having had their public services pulled from under their feet and privatised, they then die relatively young of some horribly painful ailment.

Let's sort out the underlying problems, instead of further victimising their victims. Let's not become judgmental, twitchy-curtain neighbours, like Ms Soubry, and call it anything other than pure cruelty.

***

UPDATE – 25 January 2013

I watched Anna Soubry’s appearance on the BBC’s Question Time yesterday evening. Her unwillingness to admit that her comments were wrong could only be characterised as wilful; her aggressiveness towards anyone who suggests otherwise as defensive.

She refutes data collected over a period of years, which is indeed capable of showing trends. Instead she chooses to look at data from only 2012 (a snapshot), from England only (a snapshot of a snapshot), on 11-year-old children (a snapshot of a snapshot of a snapshot) and apply it to all poor people of all ages in all areas, because that serves her narrative. If that is not the essence of prejudice, I don’t know what is.

Obesity has dozens of factors which are well established contributors. There is a statistically significant link, between race and obesity (for example, see figures 6 and 7 in this study). Applying Ms Soubry’s logic, it would be acceptable to say that almost all Black Caribbean people are fat. There is a statistically significant link between people with sedentary jobs and obesity (for example, see this report). Does this mean Ms Soubry can spot almost all office workers at the beach? There is evidence that working long hours and overtime may increase the risk of obesity (from a study conducted on nursing staff). Does it follow that Ian Duncan Smith can spot strivers by looking at their butts?

It is incontrovertible that deprivation is linked to malnutrition with all the health problems that may bring. One of them is being overweight. Another is being underweight. Another is having skin problems from vitamin deficiencies. Applying Ms Soubry’s logic, poor people must almost all be fat AND thin AND spotty. Also, almost nobody who is not poor is fat or thin or spotty.

I admire her motivation to tackle the food industry. The fact that she does not see the flaw in the logic of her damaging Daily Mail rhetoric, however, is deeply worrying.

Anna Soubry was just airing her anecdotes, not citing any actual evidence. Photograph: Getty Images

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder