What were the biggest media myths of 2012?

From the Essex lion to the Liverpool Care Pathway, three contributors find the truth behind the media misreporting.

With the Leveson inquiry putting newspaper editors on their best behaviour, 2012 has naturally been a lean year for poorly supported sensational stories in our print media. Surprisingly, this hasn't left those of us who like excitement any worse off. The truth has been as exciting as any disturbing editors' fantasies we've seen in previous years.

We had an escaped lion in Essex. A lion! In Essex! With pictures and everything. They weren't even clumsily Photoshopped ones that appeared during last year's riots. Oh, hang on, they were.

Still, never mind. Pick up any issue of the Express and you'll find all sorts of gripping news about the weather or the EU banning pegs or something. Except the weather stories never match up with reality and the paper's often forgetting to print letters from EU spokespeople pointing out the Europe stories are, uh, not true.

But the most sensational news this year came from the Mail, in its 14-page expose of the quasi-masonic conspiracy surrounding the Leveson inquiry, sneaking a shadowy cabal of sinister figures right into the bosom of our democracy, like a knife into its very heart.

It's...oh sod it. I can't even keep up the pretence of this one being true even for the purposes of smartarsed sarcasm. The 16 November edition of the Daily Mail should be studied for generations as an example of how newspapers threw their weight around to silence critics using thin, sensationalised personal attacks.

That, more than any other story, is a signal that big splashes based on teeny tiny evidence will be with us for years to come. Luckily, so will lions. And Photoshop.

Steve Riley is the author of the Five Chinese Crackers blog

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"Care? No this is a pathway to killing people that doctors deem worthless," is one recent headline that horrified me both personally as a terminally-ill cancer patient and professionally as a Specialist Registrar in Elderly Medicine with an interest in Palliative Care.

Reporting over recent months about the Liverpool Care Pathway, a framework for best practice that is widely considered to be the gold standard when delivering end-of-life care, has been in my opinion consistently sensationalist and misleading in many British newspapers.

As a terminally-ill patient I find these stories extremely worrying given what the next few months hold for me. If it were not for my background I would start to doubt the underlying motives of the healthcare professionals providing my end-of-life care. The irresponsible reporting I feel is gradually chipping away at the essential foundation of trust that we as patients should always have in our doctors.

It has sown seeds of doubt that perhaps the main motivators to deliver care are monetary and resource-driven rather than acting wholly in the patient’s best interests. I am also extremely anxious that my family may interpret the LCP as ‘killing’ me rather than my cancer being responsible for my demise, making an already highly emotive time even more distressing.

Dying patients and their families who read these stories may come to think that they will be starved to death, their symptoms will not be adequately managed and that they do not matter to the people who are supposedly providing their healthcare. I wonder whether the journalists who write these articles consider the huge psychological distress they cause many terminally ill people.

My reality though is that I have a good understanding of what the LCP actually is and how it’s appropriate use guides healthcare professionals to help patients achieve comfortable and dignified deaths. I am clear in my own mind that I would want to be cared for using the LCP when my time comes and I have communicated this very clearly to my family.

As a doctor, the misrepresentation of the LCP in the mainstream media has left me in a difficult place. I have already seen a reluctance among colleagues to use the pathway since the controversy arose. Should we, as an educated profession, let the media influence our practice in this way? I believe we should continue to use an evidence-based management plan that considers the patient holistically and focusses on communication and excellent symptom control, bringing the superior care hospices offer into the hospital environment.

I feel infuriated about the accusations of "backdoor euthanasia" undermining the care doctors and nurses provide on a daily basis. I also worry that the threat of litigation may drive skilled and compassionate clinicians away from the NHS. The challenge that now faces us as doctors is to overcome the misleading reporting and be able to discuss these issues calmly, objectively and attentively to patients facing death and their relatives.

There have clearly been episodes of care that have been sub-standard described in the papers. This saddens me that at such an important time in someone’s life the NHS is sometimes failing them, but I believe this cannot be blamed solely on the LCP. I feel it is because of inadequate communication or inappropriate use of the pathway with failure to follow the guidelines and lack of on-going training.

So, as someone dying of cancer in the foreseeable future and who looks after patients in the very final stages of their lives on a daily basis, the scare-mongering and sensationalist reporting of the issues involved - in particular the LCP - has caused me a great deal of personal anguish. It is going to take a monumental effort to restore public trust in our end-of-life care practices after the damage done by the media, but I believe we will in time restore that trust by expressing compassion and doing our absolute best for these patients and their families.  

Kate Granger is a doctor, a cancer patient, and the author of The Other Side

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As a neuroscientist, it’s a dubious honour to be part of the field that gave us one of the all-time greats when it comes to science news based on flimsy evidence: Baroness Susan Greenfield.

Greenfield has espoused endlessly on the danger posed to people’s brains by computer games, the internet, social networking, screens in general and just being indoors at all (probably). She really went for broke in September though, in a Daily Mail article about the lasting damage caused to young brains by exposure to porn and "premature sexualisation".

Greenfield has been criticised repeatedly for her scaremongering stories about the dangers of modern technology on developmental process that rely only on the flimsiest of evidence, usually some offhand reference to a vaguely relevant study which only supports her argument via some considerable and questionable extrapolation.

The article about exposure to porn, though, doesn’t even go this far. The closest she gets to referencing a study is when she claims she has "spoken to young people" about the issue. Not even specifically children, "young people". Anecdotal evidence in general is no basis for alarmist claims about the workings of the brain, but in this case her whole argument and the article in general seems to be based on nothing but what young people are willing to admit about their porn viewing habits, to unfamiliar and severe 62-year-old women.

That would be flimsy grounds for a column in Nuts magazine, let alone a science article.

Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and comedian who also blogs for the Guardian

Not the same lion newspapers of which newspapers reported sightings in Essex. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.