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
GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt