Out of All Proportion

The feats of the modern economy are, despite the present crisis, still considerable, indeed astonishing, if only we stopped to think about them instead of taking them for granted. For example, the Times arrives in the western part of Turkey where I stayed recently not much later in the day than in Shropshire where I live: and even its arrival there before I even get out of bed seems to me a miracle of organisation.

The intrinsic worth of this miracle is, of course, another matter: for, as Pudd’nhead Wilson said, it’s better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so, and whether we are better-informed after having read a newspaper is sometimes doubtful.

A large story in the Times of September 25 certainly left me none the wiser about the subject of which it treated. It was about a surgeon in Birmingham who had performed many mastectomies in a fashion different from that recommended by the national guidelines. It was alleged that his method, which preserved for cosmetic reasons more breast tissue than normal, led to recurrence of the cancer.

About half the space devoted to the story was devoted to the story of one woman, a Mrs Lewis. She had an operation for cancer performed by the unorthodox surgeon in 2003. In 2012 she saw a solicitor’s advertisement about the surgeon’s unorthodox method, became worried and consulted another surgeon who told her that the chances of recurrence were very low. Alas, a few weeks later she began to feel ill and before long inoperable cancer was diagnosed. She is now suing both the surgeon and hospital in which he works.

It is a very sad story, of course, but it tells us nothing useful whatever about whether or not the surgeon was to blame for the recurrence of her cancer. A single case like this, while tragic, is not sufficient to make a judgment. I am not saying that the surgeon was not to blame, but simply that there is no relevant information in the newspaper report, not a single fact, to make any valid judgment as to whether he was or not. The story as told is pure emotional overindulgence of the kind that is now a horrible national characteristic. We suffer collectively from what might be called Little Nellism.

Recollections of emotions remain long after whatever caused them has been forgotten. Moreover we crave strong emotions to bring savour to our otherwise humdrum lives. I am furious about the way our press exploits this craving.

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