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Reporting on our health services: NUJ masterclass

25 April 2013

Kate Griffin, NUJ Oxford & district branch

Which hospital could be the next Mid-Staffs, the scandal-hit NHS foundation trust where 1, 200 patients needlessly died?

It was Shaun Linten, as a reporter for the local Express & Star, who broke the story that led to a huge public inquiry and the Francis report, led by Robert Francis QC, which was published this February.

His concern is that because of cuts to local newspapers – he has not been replaced since he left his paper – and the reduction in health specialists on national titles and broadcasting, such stories could remain uncovered. Getting the data and the inside information of a hospital takes considerable legwork.

"How many health reporters have the time to read all the documentation and get out of the office to interview people, when they are also covering church fetes as well? We need to have some editorial leadership in newsrooms if health journalism is to continue to survive."

Shaun, who now works for the Health Service Journal, describes himself as an accidental health reporter; but now, he says, it is his passion.

Shaun was taking part in an NUJ masterclass on reporting the NHS with a distinguished panel of experts, chaired by John Lister, senior lecturer in health journalism at Coventry University, with Branwen Jeffreys, BBC health correspondent, and Paul Bradshaw, a senior lecturer in online journalism at Birmingham University, who runs a blog/project Help Me Investigate.

The audience heard that the huge reorganisation of the NHS, a "dreadful" new Department of Health website, added to the cuts to health journalism have created a perfect storm.

John Lister outlined the consequences of the roll-out of the Health & Social Care Act that wound up Primary Care Trusts and Strategic Health Authorities. New bodies, Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) which hold budgets at local level and a national NHS Commissioning Board, with a network of regional offices – have taken their place.

Other organisations, such as Health Watch, the so-called consumer champion for health and social care, Health & Wellbeing Boards, and council Health Oversight & Scrutiny Committees also join this transformed landscape.

One of the major problems, said Branwen Jeffreys, is that the reorganisation makes it more difficult to compare like with like, for example, comparing how institutions deal with infections, because the data will be collected in a different way and cover different areas. She was also concerned that one useful source for health journalists – GPs – are now part of the formal structure and their constitutions include gagging clauses.

She said Health Watch may be the joker in the pack, because it includes local councillors who may be prepared to speak out.

She said that there are stories to cover. With NHS spending flat-lining for the first time in many years, there will be cuts, closures, increases to waiting lists and rationing of services. The public may not get to grips with the new structure, but they will notice what is happening to their services.

Her tip was to keep an eye on underspends. In 2011/12, there was an underspend of £820 million, which all goes back to the Treasury.

Paul Bradshaw said there was a rich environment of people writing about health, including a new breed of bloggers such as Richard Grimes, and a number of campaign groups such as Save Our NHS. Although these groups are partisan, it is the job of the journalist to marry the data, the personal stories, information and opinions into a story that matters.

The story of the children's heart surgery unit at Leeds was a classic example of where it is difficult to get to the real story when the data is not always available and emotions are running high, he said.

Hospital and hospital department closures are always emotive, said Branwen Jeffreys, but it is important not to get caught up in these emotions and get to the facts: it may make sense to have to travel a little further to an Accidents & Emergency unit if the service is better.

The bad news, said Shaun Lintern, is that the reorganisation is unlikely to be the last. He predicted that many CCGs would be forced to merge because they are not sustainable. And with an election not too far away, what else do the political parties have in store? His advice to the journalists at the meeting was: read everything and talk to everybody. "This is not a job," he said. "it's a vocation."

Listen to audio clips from the event:

Transcripts of the speeches are available on the European health journalism website.

Tags: , new media, NHS, newspapers, health journalism