Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Opinion becomes propaganda

I was quite surprised to see in the pub trade magazine, the Morning Advertiser, two articles about the statement by Pete Brown that he has mostly stopped drinking cask ale. One article was by Brown himself, and the other referred to the response by CAMRA national chair, Colin Valentine. Why the big fuss? Partly because Pete Brown is a regular beer columnist in the Advertiser, and partly because he has won awards from the beer writers' club, the British Guild of Beer Writers, including in 2016 Beer Writer of the Year for the third time.

Apparently Brown is fed up of getting poor real ale, which according to his article happens all the time. My thought is quite simple: he must be choosing the wrong pubs because what he's written doesn't reflect my own experience. Real ale is the one expanding part of the beer market; if he were right about the state of the product, I'd expect sales to be contracting.

I'm wondering whether this is another sideswipe at CAMRA, an organisation that Brown has consistently criticised, along with its members, even though he did actually join in 2012, as he wrote in this mea culpa piece at the time. Even as he signed up, he wrote about the "social [CAMRA] stereotype of the socially inadequate, visibly outlandish beer nerd, with his big belly, beard, opaque glasses, black socks and sandals, and leather tankard on his belt." That's a bit rich coming from someone with uncombed hair, a scrappy beard and untidy clothes. Whatever your views on Roger Protz, another prominent beer writer, you certainly can't describe his appearance in such terms.

I once took a beer blogger to task because I felt a description he gave of an unreasonable pub customer was implausible; I explained why I thought the described behaviour could not have occurred. He admitted the incident described had not actually happened, but was an amalgam of two or three separate incidents. So, in other words, it was made up, including the quoted dialogue. I think this matters. If he'd said that it was a hypothetical example of the kind of behaviour he'd come across, then there could have been no complaint - although in that particular case it would still have seemed improbable to me. Even hypothetical examples should seem credible.

I wonder whether Brown has done something similar. In my view, his antipathy to CAMRA has spilled over into his articles. In one, he described how he was drinking in a pub when a customer went to the bar, said he was a CAMRA member and suggested that he should get free beer because without CAMRA, the pub wouldn't be serving real ale. Even worse, he went and joined a friend and they began swapping videos about trains. Two stereotypes in one anecdote: a boorish real ale drinker with a sense of entitlement - and a train spotter to boot!

Another alleged incident was at a dinner put on by, I think, a brewery where the beer on the table Brown was sitting at ran out, causing a CAMRA member to complain loudly. The host went and brought some bottles from his own supply and placed them on the table, for which the CAMRA member gave no thanks, proceeding to claim them all for himself and not letting anyone else near them. Loud-mouthed, rude and greedy all in one!

I have no way of disproving such stories, but I find it difficult to understand why I, as someone who joined CAMRA when Brown was doing his 'O' levels, have never come across such bad behaviour by CAMRA members. In my experience, they tend to be just as well- or, if you prefer, just as bad-mannered as the general public. The difference is that I don't have a well-documented antipathy to CAMRA, which I'd be the first to agree isn't a perfect organisation, but then neither is any other on the planet.

In his Morning Advertiser article, Brown refers to "campaigners who insist cask ale is the highest quality beer available, while simultaneously demanding that it is cheaper than any other beer on the bar". Which particular campaigners might these be? Certainly CAMRA has campaigned for cuts in beer duty, but I can't recall any campaigns demanding that licensees cut their prices. Most CAMRA members would understand that pub profit margins on real ale are very slim. If price were their only consideration, then surely they'd all be drinking only in Wetherpoons and similar lower price establishments; this is quite clearly not the case, Wetherspoons vouchers notwithstanding.

Writing about beer - as in writing about music, come to think of it - should be a combination of facts and opinions. While accepting that genuine errors can occur, what you understand to be factual can shape your opinions, but opinions - or prejudices - shouldn't modify your perception of the facts, or else you'll be producing propaganda, not information.


  1. Yes, Pete Brown's article does seem a tad exaggerated. Certainly doesn't fit in with my own experience.

  2. I wonder if he’s still a member?


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