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
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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.