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The Mail should be in the dock, not Lord Sumption


THE ‘Right-wing’ press claims to be the most opposed to the underhand tactics of the outrage mob. Yet, time and time again it cries ‘outrage’ when none is warranted, even against those figures it should be trying most to defend. 

You will remember the cancellation of Sir David Starkey last year, and the uselessness of the ‘Right-wing’ press in this sordid affair. It seems these newspapers have not learned a thing. 

The latest victim of those who love to be offended is the esteemed former Supreme Court judge, Lord Sumption, who featured on yesterday’s front page of the Daily Mail with the headline: ‘Outrage as ex-top judge tells cancer patient, 39: Your life is less valuable.’  

Highly insulting, I quite agree. Only it is a gross misinterpretation of what was really said. 

Lord Sumption did not claim that Deborah James, a podcaster, lived a less valuable life because she had cancer, as the headline rather forcefully suggests. His comments related simply to age. 

His argument was both far less (in relation to Ms James) and far more specific (in policy terms) than the Daily Mail has made out: That policymakers (especially in matters relating to public health) use the tool Qaly (quality-adjusted life years) in order to determine how much spending on a particular form of medical intervention can be justified, and to find the least damaging of alternative courses of action.   

The clinical commissioning body NICE and the NHS make decisions based on Qalys every day – as George Cooper recently discussed here when he examined the huge cost of lockdown if measured in Qalys – how the decision on every new drug treatment for example, whether or not it is affordable, is judged on this basis.  

This is not a comment on the moral value of each patient, nor on their value as a human. Lord Sumption has since tried to point this out in a painful-to-watch ‘interview’ with the purposefully ignorant Piers Morgan: ‘One thing that policymakers can’t do is say, “We will look at the life history of every patient in hospital and we will work out whether they have contributed more to society”, and so on … they have to operate on metrics, and they do, all the time. It is simply a fact of decision-making in public life.’ 

Indeed. The whole point of Qaly is to make as dispassionate a judgment about cost effectiveness as possible. Lord Sumption’s point was that policies were being made to help the old that damaged the young – for example, his life based on his Qaly, he believes, was less valuable than his grandchild’s. 

Whatever your view of this metric, it is clear that Lord Sumption’s words have been wilfully misinterpreted. They have been taken out of context of the major thrust of his argument on the huge collateral damage of lockdown and then blown up out of all proportion 

Most dispiriting about this is that the Daily Mail must have known its headline was misleading, since it also published (near the end of its article) a statement from Lord Sumption which clarified the matter: ‘I object extremely strongly to any suggestion that I was inferring that Miss James’s life was less valuable because she had cancer. 

‘I thought she was responding to my earlier comments about older people being protected by a total lockdown which is causing immense harm to the young who are unaffected. 

‘That harm can be to their mental health or through cooping undergraduates up at university or through the loss of jobs. I was saying this should not be inflicted on the young to protect old people like me. 

‘If Miss James has misinterpreted that, then I can only apologise to her, as it was not my intention to suggest she was less valuable. Sometimes on video links it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying.’ 

But the Mail published the story – along with a photo of Miss James in a hospital bed after a recent operation – anyway. 

Shamefully, the Times has even decided to publish another jab at Lord Sumption today by the increasingly disappointing writer Melanie Phillips. 

The only ‘story’ here is that two thinking adults had a misunderstanding. Every such thinking adult has such a misunderstanding every day of their life.  

It is part of the very process of thinking. It is part – for better or worse – of being human. Once the misunderstanding has been recognised, it should be commented on no further, not splashed on the front page of a newspaper. 

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Michael Curzon
Michael Curzon
Michael Curzon is Sunday Editor at The Conservative Woman and Editor of Bournbrook Magazine.

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