Just been watching Newsnight’s piece on did the world over-react to swine flu?

Why is it that we all believed there were to be many thousands of deaths when in fact only 250 people have died.

Why is it that so much money has been spent on drugs, with all the clever clauses in the pharmaceutical companies contracts.

There was one glaring omission in Susan Watts report. She never asked the question about the role the media may have played in this.

My distinct memory of the time when the papers were all going crazy about swine flu is of Jeremy Paxman doing one of his Paxman specials, demanding repeatedly to know “how many people are going to die?”. I also remember that the scientist he was interviewing did a reasonably good job of standing up to this and trying to make the point that we were talking about statistical probabilities rather than reliable predictions of numbers of deaths.

I do at times get a little angry about this.

If someone with the intelligence of Jeremy Paxman gets caught up in this hype and search for headlines then it is hardly surprising that so many of our journalists do the same.

It is time to recognise that the media search for lurid headlines is one of the biggest dangers that good government has to face.

If reputable journalists like Jeremy Paxman join in this kind of clamour, then the government has very little option but to take the measures it did, and they had to do so with the pharmaceutical companies knowing that they hold the ace of public opinion in their hand.

My feelings about journalism and statistics are strong ones. This is because I live in Stafford, and I have been dealing for the last year with the fact that journalists as a species do not appear to be able to read or interpret statistics correctly.

The eye witness stories from Stafford hospital made great media material.- and there are many important things that they teach us about the increasingly difficult task of dealing with our ageing population. These are real questions with national significance. The headline grabbing statistics of numbers of “excess deaths” on the other hand are and always have been nonsense.

In a few weeks the Stafford Hospital Inquiry will present its findings and I think we will be asking a similar question. Did the world over-react to Stafford Hospital?

Advertisements