Media and the Staging of Policy Controversy: Obesity and the UK Sugar Tax

O'Sullivan, Terry; Daniel, Elizabeth and Harris, Fiona (2023). Media and the Staging of Policy Controversy: Obesity and the UK Sugar Tax. Critical Policy Studies, 17(4) pp. 599–618.



In response to the perceived risk to health posed by obesity, governments in over 40 countries have introduced sugar taxes (also known as soda taxes), often as part of wider plans to improve national food environments. In this study we apply critical discourse analysis (CDA) to analyse 29 television news interviews addressing the sugar tax, in order to expose how and why media companies and the experts involved stage and maintain controversy. Our analysis provides evidence of a broad range of devices, ranging from the macro choice of interviewees and the role of the interviewer to their micro level rhetorical choices. They also include experts moulding the same evidence to support their position and interviewers posing questions they know will result in a blunt contradiction. While individually each device may appear relatively inconsequential, their repeated use generates possibilities for self-perpetuating intertextuality and provides a sense of intractability that contributes to public disengagement with the issue. The value of studies such as this is to elucidate the use, ubiquity and effects of these devices that may otherwise go unnoticed or unquestioned.

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