“Freedom to make bad choices is what personal autonomy, indeed democracy, is all about,” writes Michael Buerk in his latest column for the Radio Times. And, wow, has the former star of I’m a Celebrity made a bad choice this week. In a piece entitled “Leave couch potatoes alone!”, Buerk takes aim at people he deems to be “weak” – the obese.
Picking apart the common argument that obesity is the biggest danger to the NHS in terms of cost appears to be the raison d’être of the piece, along with a plea to leave overweight people to make their own mistakes. It’s as cruel and vitriol-soaked as debates about obesity generally are – the joy Buerk takes in littering the column with pejoratives is obvious, if the results are not particularly creative. There’s the perennial “porky”, and references to “guzzling” and being “out-waddled”. There’s originality though in his choice to reframe the societal cost of obesity in a “positive” way – with a reminder that “the obese will die a decade earlier than the rest of us”.
Because, remember, dear readers – the obese will die. It’s OK. Memento mori. Everybody dies – but especially fat people. And isn’t that a wonderful and warming thought? Doesn’t that make you feel better about the future? Does it reassure you that NHS funds are safe?
Insulting the overweight is a bold choice for Buerk, because he’s going for “two-thirds of us” according to the stat in his piece. It’s also bold to insult those who enjoy watching television – “listen up, couch potato!” – in a magazine read by those who enjoy watching television. I respect him for this move as I respect any man who decides to torch the goodwill or respect he may have earned throughout his career for some attention in its later days.
What I don’t respect is the conviction with which he promotes untruths: “You’ll lose weight if you eat less”; “It’s your fault”; ”It’s your choice” – not always, unfortunately. “The truth is, healthy food is cheaper than sugar-packed, fat-soaked convenience rubbish” – maybe, maybe not.
I can’t be sure that being overweight will kill me 10 years earlier than healthier living would. But Buerk’s point that that would be OK, that it’s a worthy sacrifice for obese people to die earlier because they’ll be saving the NHS money over the long term – not to mention helping to protect the planet into the bargain – isn’t just shockingly callous, it ignores the existence of proven treatments such as stomach-shrinking surgery that can help people lose weight, improve their lives and save NHS funds. Why should treatment be denied to those struggling with obesity, whether through overeating or circumstance? Does an obese patient really deserve less empathy than any other?
Buerk also argues that VAT on takeaways and fizzy drinks covers a chunk of the extra costs to the NHS of obesity, and that’s why people shouldn’t worry about it so much.
I can’t be certain that VAT on Pringles will cover any future hospital bills I may have. What I can be fairly certain of is that this piece adds to a continuing unnecessary cruelty towards, and dehumanisation of, the two-thirds of us who are overweight. As the reporting of the article has sparked more thoughtful discussion of the subject, it’s also included objectifying headless pictures of overweight people, and links to voyeuristic videos of people struggling.
“They’re weak, not ill,” is how Buerk’s article on overweight people ends. But the reality is that it’s Buerk’s unprompted cruelty that’s weak.
• Phoebe-Jane Boyd is a content editor