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
Graham Brady illustration
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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle