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NHS Masterclass: event report

23 March 2015

"We are going back to a pre-1939 health service," said Professor Allyson Pollock. "We will be seeing a reduction in life expectancy and people being turned away from hospitals."

This picture was presented to a meeting of health writers, journalists and PRs held by the NUJ. The creation of an internal market and reforms to NHS structures have radically altered the service and present new challenges to those reporting and writing about it.

Professor Pollock said the coalition government had abolished the public NHS in England when it passed the Health and Social Care Act in 2012 – the act effectively reduced the NHS to a funding stream and a logo. Since 2003, government policy in England had been to channel billions of pounds of scarce NHS funds to the for-profit private sector. But, she said, privatisation had proved to be a highly inefficient way of providing health care.

But who is telling this story?

The NUJ's NHS Masterclass event was an attempt to look at how health reporters can tell this tale and unearth stories to expose what is happening in the health service; to whom to address the questions and how to frame them.  It also gave health campaigners the opportunity to ask national journalists how they could get newsdesks interested in running their story.

Shaun Lintern was the journalist who exposed the scandalous lack of care at Mid Staffordshire hospital, leading to a major inquiry, when he was a reporter at the Wolverhampton Express & Star. His career as an award-winning health journalist was launched one day when he picked up the phone and received a tip which set him off to uncover what was one of the biggest scandals in the NHS. He believes the inquiry, led by Robert Francis QC, has led to a new emphasis on patient safety and confidence in the system by health staff.

But the problem is, he says, many local papers today do not have specialists correspondents and the cuts in newspaper staff result in journalists not being given the time to do investigative work. While Shaun was poring through health reports and health trust minutes, he was also expected to report on dog shows.

He now works for the Health Service Journal, known in the trade as the health managers' bible. He said it was important for journalists – not the most trusted of professions if the opinion polls are believed – to act with integrity.  He said:

"Don't just top and tail the press release. Read the report to the end; not just the executive summary.  Use your time on the train or bus to do your reading. Make sure you attend health industry events and network. Put together a good list on Twitter – I have had consultants who normally I can't get near, respond to me on social media.
"As the election looms, the hyperbole starts – the scare stories and the statistics. It is our job to provide an analysis and make sense of the noise. We need to be the experts explaining what is happening and whether there really is a crisis in A&E."

Caroline Molloy agreed. She is a writer, researcher, campaigner and editor of OurNHS at openDemocracy, the campaign to preserve the NHS as a nationalised service. It recently ran a story on the leaked proposals to hand over the commissioning of cancer services to a "prime provider", which could be a private company, which will then sub-contract the services to other companies and providers. She said:

"We are hearing the term ‘bed blockers’ again, but what we do not hear about is that the number of NHS beds has been drastically reduced."

Andrew Gregory is the Daily Mirror's health editor and has led his newspaper's campaign on mental health care. His advice was pithily summed as: be sure, sceptical, social, specific and savvy. 

"When you are writing about health, or somebody's condition it is vital to get it right. Make sure you always drill down into the information and data; there is a lot out there, but treat it with care.  There are 1.3 million people who work for the NHS; talk to them, they may all have a story. Use Freedom of Information requests. Track down what the clinical commissioning groups are doing and how services are being provided. Get a website; once you look the part, you will start to get stories."

Alan Taman, who has worked as a senior press officer in the NHS, said that its increased privatisation had changed the nature of health PR and, with the specialist health writer becoming a dying breed, reporters were being put under pressure when they had to deal with complicated health stories.

The panel agreed that, while think tanks provide stories and research, the health writer has to ask; why are they putting out this press release and who is funding this organisation?  Reporters should watch out for press releases which appear at odd times, such as Christmas Eve. If you are a campaigner trying to get a story picked up, have something specific which can be substantiated and any human interest angle is always appreciated.

Plus, as ever, follow the money.

More information:
A fact sheet to help journalists writing about the NHS, compiled by John Lister, senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University, was launched at the event and can you can download Facts for Hacks here. There are a range of resources for health writers and PRs on the European Health Journalism website.

About the speakers:

Andrew Gregory is an award-winning journalist and the health editor and columnist (Your Health) at the Daily Mirror. He is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Medical Journalists' Association, the Association of British Science Writers, and the Guild of Health Writers. In 2012, he won a British Journalism Award for his investigation into Oliver Letwin, who was dumping sensitive documents in public park bins.   Read his blog

Allyson Pollock is professor of public health research and policy at Queen Mary, University of London and author of NHS plc: the Privatisation of Our Health Care. She was previously director of the Centre for International Public Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh and head of the Public Health Policy Unit at University College London and director of research and development at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Her research interests include globalisation; privatisation, marketisation and PFI/PPPs; health services; regulation and trade; pharmaceuticals and clinical trials; and childhood injuries.  Read about the The Campaign for the NHS Reinstatement Bill 2015 and sign the petition.

John Lister is a senior lecturer in journalism at Coventry University and has written and researched on health services and health policy issues for trade union and other organisations for more than 28 years. His PhD thesis (2004) was a comparative study of market-style reforms on health care systems around the world, a revised version of which was published in 2005 as Health Policy Reform, Driving the Wrong Way. He is a founder member of Keep Our NHS Public campaign and joint chair of the standing orders committee of the National Union of Journalists, a member of the Medical Journalists' Union, the Guild of Health Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Shaun Lintern is a news correspondent on the Health Service Journal. He has been a journalist for 12 years and helped expose the Mid Staffordshire scandal in the West Midlands. He attended most days of the public inquiry into the role of the commissioning, supervisory and regulatory bodies in the monitoring of Mid Staffordshire Foundation NHS Trust, chaired by Robert Francis inquiry and was asked to give evidence as a witness. He covers issues related to the NHS workforce, pay terms and conditions, mental health services and community services. He also covers NHS trusts in the West Midlands and East Midlands.   Read Shaun in the HSJ

Alan Taman has worked as a freelance health journalist and as a senior press officer in the NHS. He holds an MA in health journalism and has researched the ethics of PR in the NHS. He is head of communications for the NHS Reinstatement Bill Campaign, a member of the NUJ Public Relations and Communications Council and chair of the NUJ's Birmingham and Coventry branch.

Caroline Molloy is editor of OurNHS at openDemocracy. She is a writer, researcher and campaigner. She has a background in the trade union movement and has most recently been writing about health, the environment and trade union issues. OurNHS is a three-year project, hosted by openDemocracy, dedicated to reinstating a genuine National Health Service in England. You can read more about OurNHS.

Tags: , health journalism, specialist writers, shaun lintern, john lister, nhs