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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.