Playing cards with granny

24 April, 2009

You would think the Daily Mail would be all in favour of strict identity checks on anyone buying alcohol. This is the paper which, in August last year, declared “there is now an orgy of drunkenness that rivals the gin epidemic of Victorian times” – which it blamed, as it usually does, on 24-hour alcohol sales.

“Since the relaxation of the licensing laws in November 2005 – which allowed round-the-clock sales of drinks in pubs, clubs, shops and supermarkets – the cost to the nation both socially and financially has been huge,” the Mail told readers, who might be forgiven for thinking that every pub and off-licence in the land is doing a roaring trade at a time when milkmen are beginning their rounds.

The Mail has led the tabloid pack when it comes to exposing the misdemeanours of the licensed trade. Its crusade against binge-drinking and young lives wasted through alcohol addiction could be applauded, but like many of its lower-circulation rivals, it has often seemed to lose its sense of perspective.

After years of reporting that the trade is casually and recklessly selling to minors – and singularly failing to devote any meaningful space to the efforts being made to prevent? this – the media now seems obsessed by a different problem. The new plaything of choice, replacing the 14-year-old who tells reporters she bought cider at the local offie, is the grandmother who is asked for ID when she tries to buy her weekly Pinot Grigio.

Variations of this story have appeared in countless forms in virtually all the dailies and every regional paper. Yet far from concluding that such cases are common precisely because retailers now have effective (if sometimes slightly rigid) age verification systems in place, journalists have wailed that the world has gone crazy and supermarkets are operating some kind of private-sector police state.

Here’s an early example of the genre, from the Sun in 2007. “A grandmother was refused a bottle of wine because she could not prove she was over 18.

“Tina MacNaughton-Jones, 47, at first thought the checkout assistant was joking when she asked her for proof of age at the Waitrose store.

“Ms MacNaughton-Jones’? 22-year-old daughter Fiona tried to buy the red wine on her behalf and showed the assistant her own identification. But she too was refused service in case she gave the bottle to her mother.” As with most other “outraged granny” stories, this one ends with the “embarrassed” retailer apologising and explaining its ID policy.

Checkout clanger?Newspapers have often reported on the evils of proxy purchasing, but rarely sympathise with checkout staff who try to prevent it. “A father who tried to buy six beers from a branch of Tesco was told that he could not be served because he had his teenage daughter with him,” wrote the Times in May 2008. The article did at least quote Tesco’s response that “one of the biggest problems has become adults buying for people who are under-age”, and even informed readers that the store risked a £10,000 fine and a lost licence if it breached the law.

But it added: “Consumer advice experts said that there was no legal reason why? [the father] should not have been served if he was of legal age, could prove this if asked, and did not seem intoxicated or impaired by alcohol.” This year is already turning out to be a vintage one for outraged grannies, grandads, mums and dads. In January the Mail recounted the story of a 40-year-old mother who “was astonished when staff at Tesco refused to let her buy beer – insisting she was too young”. (Karen Hamilton did present student ID, but was rightly told this could easily be faked.) In the same month, 30-year-old Hannah Craig – or, to use her full Sun name, Gobsmacked Hannah Craig – was told by Morrisons she needed ID to buy whisky-flavoured cheese. “I can’t believe Morrisons are taking their approach to under-age drinking to these extremes,” she said. Perhaps she had missed the tabloid hysteria of the past few years.

Red faces?Again in January, the Mail learned that Jennifer Rogers, 68, and Joyce Fisher, 70, were carded in their local One Stop. “Speechless Jennifer produced her old-style paper driving licence but incredibly staff would not accept it without a photo?. The humiliated grandmother of two then had to use a bus pass.” Sadly, “Joyce was still too upset to talk about the matter”.

In March, the Telegraph, Sun and Mirror all reported the tale of Karen Dumelow, whose 14-year-old daughter Emily was asked for ID by Tesco staff when her mother tried to buy two bottles of wine with her groceries. Mum ended up sending the teenager to the car so the transaction could go ahead.

Emily was “embarrassed” and of course Tesco had to apologise for the zeal of its checkout staff – low-waged workers who risk large fines, police interviews and lost jobs if they slip up on busy shifts.

Richard Littlejohn had some fun with more examples of such “lunacy” in his Mail column on January 9. “The idea that supermarkets are accusing law-abiding adults of being purveyors of illicit hooch to under-age hooligans is not only risible but deeply offensive,” he wrote. But at least he didn’t exactly blame retailers for this state of affairs: instead, it was a sinister government plan.

“Putting pressure on supermarkets to inconvenience customers in the most ridiculous of circumstances is part of the plot,” he revealed. “The government figures that eventually we’ll become so frustrated that we’ll gratefully accept a ‘one-stop’ state identity card.”?Gavin Partington, head of communications at the WSTA, has grown accustomed to such media coverage. “This is a heads you win, tails I lose situation,” he says. “Time was when to ask someone’s age was to risk causing offence, but the truth is now that with schemes such as Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 people have become more used to the idea that they might be asked.

This is about stopping under-age sales. And if a few 47-year-olds get asked their age in the process, they should look on the bright side.”??

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