"Did you see me on 20/20 last night?" I'm sure a lot of students asked that of their mates last Monday. You know the ALAC survey claiming 51% of New Zealanders are binge drinkers? Well, sensing easy meat, the good people at 20/20 came down to Dunedin to do a fright story about student drinking culture.
To put things in context there was an interview with Clarke Gayford, C4 host and Otago alumnus.
"Oh, burning couches is almost compulsory down here", he lied. But then he said "It's a freedom thing - you come down here, you're shopping for a double bed and pitching in with your mates for a keg..."
True enough. Putting 18,000 kids in a different city from their parents, telling them they're cool and giving them beer is asking for trouble. And asking around about alcohol certainly got 20/20 an enthusiastic chorus of "Shit, yeah". But you have to consider the milieu of the interviews. Clarke used to co-host Cow TV, a program dedicated to the manifesto that students are clever, zany people always throwing elaborate stunts and practical jokes. How credible a source do you suppose he is? And if you came to town in the middle of Orientation Week, gatecrashed a second-year party, stuck a TV camera in someone's face and said "so, you guys drinking?" what response would you expect?
20/20 also interviewed some of our fearless leaders - OUSA President Andrew Cushen washing his hands like MacBeth at the castle well and Viki Yates, the more self-absorbed of our two Women's Rights Officers, gleefully explaining how she 'always' gets touched up in pubs (come on, Vic - you're not that hot). Thus the story consisted of attention-seeking, self-aggrandising lies from both the student body and the earnest, fatuous dorks who play at being the leaders thereof. And consequently, about the only pertinent comment in the whole item was "Scarfies drink".
Which they do. Frequently to excess. And I'm sure that, as they survey suggests, 10% of female students and 20% of their boyfriends have suffered 'negative effects' as a result of someone else's drinking. But what does that mean? I once had some inebriated jerk insist on shaking my hand for some reason. Another time I was hit on by a bunch of female acquaintances who, ipso facto, must have been fairly wasted. But they were also kidding (the ringleader later congratulated me for not returning their attentions) and apart from having to walk one of those girls home safely I wouldn't say I was inconvenienced by it. I spoke to the proctor about this recently (20/20, bafflingly, didn't), and he was quick to point out that these 'negative effects' had more to do with babysitting stupid flatmates and dodging vomit slicks on Monday mornings than it did with beatings and rapes.
Pinpointing alcohol as a cause of obnoxious student behaviour, furthermore, ignores a key point. Students behave badly. But the problem is not that half of students are binge drinkers. The problem is that almost all students are in their teens or twenties. Invested with the rights of adulthood but exempt from its responsibilities - wife, kids, mortgage - such people will behave like heedless idiots with or without something to drink. Trust me, I do it myself. That's why we have a proctor. Boozing is a symptom, not a cause. Students who throw noisy parties, chuck woodchips at cars and cop handfuls of Viki in Re:Fuel or me at KAOS functions aren't acting drunk. They're acting their age.
20/20 did a bad story, but frankly I don't blame them. They just jumped on a recent publication and made some easy copy off it, pretty much what I'm doing with them right now. Anybody familiar with the horrible, creeping deadlines journalism necessarily entails has to sympathise with them.
Journalists will be journalists. And students, being students, have only themselves to blame for providing a storm for the teacup. If they'd wanted to explain their drinking habits, they could have said "Yes, Ms Journalist, we are moderately drunk, but this is a merely a temporary by-product of being of an age where our entire existence is a meaningless exercise in having fun, puffing ourselves up and playing to the cameras. Hence we are full of shit. Please tell us to sit down and shut up." But of course they didn't do that. Instead, they just acted like students - foolishly, falsely, and self-referentially. I'm sure a lot of questions will be asked about last Sunday's story, but I'm also pretty sure the most common one will be:
"Did you see me on 20/20 last night?"