Media hypocrites fuelled by cocaine

Drug use among hacks is, surprise, surprise, under-reported, writes Paul McCann
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The Independent Online
ONE NIGHT during the 1997 Edinburgh Television Festival, delegates propping up the bar of the George Hotel where it is based watched four policemen troop into the gents'.

Some thought they were there to stop trouble. But the illegality you associate with television executives and toilets has little to do with violence.

The policemen left empty- handed, but after the case of the cocaine- taking Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon they, and many others, will continue to harbour the suspicion that the media is riddled with what Frank Zappa once described as "God's way of telling you are making too much money".

A belief persists that for every Frank Bough and Steve Coogan whose cocaine use makes headlines, there are a dozen unknown journalists, ad executives or television producers hanging around loos.

Tragic cases, like that of Michael VerMeulen, the editor of GQ magazine who died from a cocaine overdose in 1995, serve only to heighten this suspicion. Getting Away With It, the story of Loaded, by Tim Southwell, one of its founders, lists three journalists from the magazine who admit using the drug. Earlier this year the television producer Ben Hamilton was caught snorting coke in his car while on stakeout for an investigative documentary.

The suspicion is that what is an illegal activity is ignored by media institutions, or treated as a health issue. Magenta DeVine, the Rough Guide presenter, was not sacked, but given assistance and treatment after she admitted cocaine addiction. At least one London media watering hole is reputed to have put marble tops on its lavatory cisterns to ease the chopping of lines of cocaine. In many medialand hostelries, two people coming out of the same toilet cubicle is not considered abnormal behaviour.

The Metropolitan Police will act against Richard Bacon only if someone presents evidence. As the BBC has no evidence, it is up to the police to contact the News of the World, which revealed what he had done.

For many in television, the first reaction to the Bacon case was that if he had worked on any other programme, his career would not have been threatened. Dr Adam Winstock, of the National Addiction Centre at the Maudsley Hospital in London, believes he knows why cocaine appeals to media people. "You have those with fragile egos, who are judged on their most recent work, and this is a drug that can give them confidence. Those professions also require lots of social interaction - often involving alcohol and late nights. Cocaine allows you to drink more without becoming intoxicated and can make you appear confident. Of course it also makes you restless, agitated and paranoid. On the come-down it causes sleeplessness, anxiety and depression."

In the Eighties, the American music and radio industries were greased by cocaine. Today, occasionally, public relations people will try to ingratiate themselves with journalists by offering lines of coke.

The reputedly wide cocaine use by journalists makes the outraged attitudes of newspapers to drugs and stars worth questioning. Undoubtedly most older newspaper executives believe what they are printing. But there must be reporters who wrote about "evil" drugs while having the drugs in their system at the time. One tabloid reporter who uses cocaine says: "In any drug story there is always another element - like being a children's TV presenter - that makes it a story. The reporter's drug use is irrelevant."

The danger of focusing on the cocaine habits of people in the metropolitan media is that it ignores the drug's popularity across the country and across different social groups.

Farmers and builders in rural areas take cocaine and it is no longer expensive. Greg Poulter, of the drug charity Release, says: "Eighteen months ago, a gram would cost you pounds 60 to pounds 80. Now it is between pounds 40 and pounds 60 without loss in quality." The Home Office says cocaine seizures increased from 940kg in 1995 to 2,074kg in 1997.

Dr Winstock says: "In a study of 200 clubbers from all walks of life, 70 per cent had taken cocaine. One third of university students have tried it."

Oswin Baker, of the Institute for the Study of Drug Dependency, says: "The thrust of drug research through the Nineties has been to try to dispel the stereotypical view of drug users." There is no stronger stereotype than the bloated-ego media type with a rolled-up note in a nostril. Then, it might be said, no one expects Blue Peter presenters to be drug users.