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Reporting on the NHS: The struggle to get to the real story

In In The News, Insider by Andrew BrookesLeave a Comment

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A recent inspection found that the emergency department of the hospital I used to cover as a journalist put patients at risk with ‘unsafe’ practices.

It’s clearly a serious story and one that must be highlighted – but it reminded me of the complexities of reporting on the NHS and how it’s important not to lose sight of the real story underpinning such announcements.

Boston’s Pilgrim Hospital belongs to the trust which last year was found to have the worst performing A&E in the country and regularly suffers from scathing reports at the hands of inspectors.

The hospital has been graded ‘inadequate’, the Trust placed in special measures more than once.

Reporting drew criticism

Yet, when we used to publish these facts, we’d regularly face criticism that we were part of the problem and that a constant string of negative headlines merely served to undermine the hospital, entrench negative opinions and deter new recruits.

Criticism of negative headlines was fairly standard from people who were uncomfortable with the truth being published – and similar logic was deployed by red-faced council bosses or court defendants.

You can’t afford to ignore the facts just because they’re uncomfortable and, as I used to try to point out, pointing out a negative isn’t negative.

It’s also fair to say that people have a different feeling about the NHS than some other public services. Conservative politician Nigel Lawson once said the NHS is ‘the closest thing the English people have now to a religion’ and people do, rightly in my view, feel fiercely protective of it.

On top of that, the hospital was also a major employer in the town and an important asset – it was clearly not nice for the people working there to read negative news about it.

The bigger picture

Yet, we felt there was something more to this story. The critics weren’t just embarrassed or overly protective – and, in some respects, helped us to understand the bigger picture and why we couldn’t fall into the trap of just repeating inspection reports without further question.

It was our job to keep our readers informed and the truth seemed to be that the inspection reports only told a fraction of the story. The Pilgrim – and doubtless many other parts of the NHS that are struggling – desperately lacked the staff and resources it needed to look after our readers. It was worrying that it was being adjudged to be failing but it seemed to me that the staff and patients were being let down by the system. Each inspection report really begged the question – ‘so what are you doing to help then’?

In my time at Boston a whole ward was closed off with no (or certainly insufficient) public scrutiny. We also had the farcical situation of health minister Andrew Lansley agreeing to release funds to upgrade the maternity unit only for the bureaucrats not to bother applying for the money.

Lansley’s visit to the hospital was ridiculous in its own right, with officials going out of their way to stop us from talking to him as we prowled around the hospital grounds. One person had the cheek to tell me that they were barring him from speaking to us because of the London mayoral elections. When we eventually cornered him on the way for a curry later that evening, he was polite and happy to answer a couple of questions, which only rendered the excessive subterfuge and beefed up police presence all the more baffling.

Proper scrutiny and funding were two things that the hospital badly needed. Rumours persisted that the hospital was to be downgraded and services lost – and, indeed, last year campaigners had to fight a threat to the children’s ward.

Above all, it struck us as perverse that the NHS would keep sending in people to tell us how bad the Pilgrim was doing without addressing the root cause. You might as well as have walked in to Boston United every few months and demanded to know why they hadn’t won the Premier League. Constantly telling someone they’re underperforming when they don’t have the resources they need to perform to your expectations must be demotivating and infuriating. No wonder we sometimes bore the brunt of that frustration.

The challenge for journalists

I certainly feel that it’s a real challenge for journalists to see beyond the words of official reports and judgements. It’s the same for Ofsted and schools – very rarely does a cold official report tell you what’s really going on. You need to be conversant in the incomprehensible nonsense that these reports are written in and then have the contacts and manpower to dig deeper. I fear that a reduction in journalist numbers and resources makes it all too easy to top and tail an official release without delving further.

My experience with the NHS and the Pilgrim Hospital showed that that sort of reporting does a disservice to the staff and patients and our readers more generally. We’ve seen with the likes of the Grenfell Tower disaster that we cannot simply rely on the ‘official line’ about serious matters such as this.

It’s not easy to get the right answers – or indeed any sometimes – but good journalism seldom is easy.