Anne Gulland: No news is bad news: how the papers filled their health pages over Christmas

The period between Christmas and 1 January is a quiet one for UK news outlets. The government and most major organisations hold back big announcements until the new year; and if there are no breaking stories about murders, natural disasters, or wars, filling those (albeit diminished) news pages and television and radio bulletins can be difficult.

Working on the BMJ’s news desk at this time, I did what most journalists do when searching for stories: I looked at what everyone else had written. I found stories with shady sources; wild claims with no figures to back them up; and rehashed Department of Health announcements. There was nothing here to exercise Lord Leveson’s inquiry into media ethics, but the coverage was interesting nevertheless.

The Guardian ran a story headlined “Cyclists deaths rise during a recession.” It stated: “The DfT’s [Department for Transport’s] 2011 annual report on UK road casualties shows that cyclist deaths across the UK rose by 7% last year, up from 104 in 2009 to 111 in 2010, just as many of the government austerity measures were kicking in.” The story then reported increases in the number of deaths among cyclists during the 1930s depression and the 1980s recession. Though the 2011 figures were taken from the department’s report, which was published on 29 September last year, no source was given for the older figures.

As Charlie Lloyd from the London Cycling Campaign pointed out in the Guardian’s story, more cyclists means more accidents: “Cycling fatalities in general are not getting any worse. It is likely that any increase in the number of fatalities during a recession is related to an increase in the number of cyclists.”

A solicitor from Thompsons Law was quoted reporting a “marked increase” in the number of personal injury claims brought by cyclists, particularly in London and the south west of England, although the solicitor gave no figure. Department for Transport figures show that the number of cyclists on the road rose by 1% from 2009 to 2010 and that the number of casualties rose by the same amount.

Because the older figures are impossible to verify, this seems like a story that ticks boxes for lefty Guardian readers: cycling and anger over the government’s austerity measures. However, the coalition government did not come to power until May 2010, and the first budget wasn’t unveiled until the following month. That allowed just six months for austerity measures to kick in and force road users to give up more expensive transport options for the cheaper bike. That link between cyclists’ deaths and austerity measures is looking shakier.

Surprisingly the Daily Mail also reported the story, citing “new research,” However, this new research seems to be the Guardian’s own deductions.

Another story that gained momentum over Christmas was an exclusive in the Telegraph on 27 December reporting that the prime minister, David Cameron, was planning to introduce a minimum price on alcohol. The paper reported that Mr Cameron “ordered officials to develop a scheme in England to stop the sale of alcohol at below 40p to 50p a unit in shops and supermarkets.” The quoting of a Whitehall “source” is perhaps the most telling part of the report, which goes into detailed explanation of the various pricing options. The source said, “The Prime Minister has decided that when it comes to alcohol, something pretty radical now has to be done and he is keen on the minimum price.”

The health secretary for England, Andrew Lansley, has previously stated his opposition to minimum pricing, and the proposal runs counter to the government’s anti-interventionist stance. Many other newspapers followed up the story the next day, in news and comment sections, and the Daily Mail’s columnist Steve Doughty used it as an excuse to bash the “baleful influence of the medical profession.”

No other paper or news outlet was able to supply any more hard evidence that the government was seriously considering minimum pricing, instead quoting a government spokesman that “no decision has been made.” The Daily Mirror chose to cover the story as a “huge row” in the Conservative party, with the “prominent” backbench Tory MP Philip Davies branding the proposal as “ludicrous.”

While alcohol was exercising the Telegraph, tranquillisers were on the mind of the Independent, with a splash on 29 December blaming doctors (again) for “creating prescription drug addicts” and failing to follow guidelines published more than 20 years ago.

Lawyers and medical experts reported an “increase” in medical negligence claims, and experts warned of a coming “flood” of claims against doctors “by patients left physically and psychologically broken by ‘indefensible’ long-term prescribing of addictive tranquillisers.”
So what kind of increase are we talking about here? Who knows, because the only figures the story includes are these: “The Bridge Project in Bradford tracks down long-term benzodiazepine users. In five months this year, one of its specialist drugs workers helped 102 patients.” The implication is that this is a high figure, but when there is nothing to compare it with such a statement is meaningless.

The Department of Health was also guilty of reheating old stories, “unveiling” plans to pilot a scheme to enable patients to register with the general practice of their choice. The government announced a trial in November (BMJ Careers), and the only new element of this story was the naming of the three areas. All the major newspapers covered this as though it was a major announcement.

No one was harmed as a result of these stories, no one was libelled, no one’s privacy was invaded—but if you are looking for a good read next Christmas, it might be better to find something that is actually described as fiction.

Anne Gulland is a freelance journalist.