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26 July 1999

How the good news hit the spike

When a reporter found a successful NHS service, the editor didn't want to know

By Claire Rayner

If, as we are so often reminded, a nation gets the media it deserves, we must indeed be a stupid and mean-spirited lot, at least when it comes to health issues.

On the one hand, we would appear to be obsessed with life-saving information, but only when it comes in the form of magic bullets and great medical breakthroughs. On the other, we want to complain about every attempt made by the National Health Service to improve the methods it uses to deliver healthcare to the 50 million or more of us who use the service on a regular basis.

Consider this. Last week I was called by a health reporter who asked me to comment, as president of the Patients Association, on NHS Direct, the new service that provides care to worried patients without appointments at any time of day or night, thus avoiding turning GPs out of their beds or jamming up busy A&E departments. Having investigated the service thoroughly and visited one of its offices to see it in action, I was happy to be able to tell her that the association approved warmly of NHS Direct. It was efficient, friendly, reassuring, safe and easily accessible.

As a good journalist, she was not prepared just to take my word for it. She wanted to test it. Would I help her? I was glad to and invented a case history involving a possible kidney infection (potentially severe), which she could present on the phone to one of the NHS Direct nurses. I suggested she made her call outside normal consulting hours. I told her what the service would probably do and what they ought to do, namely: give her advice on short-term self-care; strongly advise her to see her own GP in the morning but in the meantime to rest; and assure her she was at no risk and could call them any time if her anxiety increased.

The reporter called back a few days later. She had used my scenario and all had gone as I had predicted. The nurse had been helpful and reassuring and the service so easy to access that she, the journalist, who disliked having to visit her own doctor, intended to use it for her own care in the future. She said that this was her story: here was a real threat to the GPs’ role as gatekeepers to the NHS, which many of them are very worried about. And she went off to write it.

She called me a few days later. The news editor had spiked it. “It wasn’t the story he wanted,” she said. I protested, begging her to ask him again. She did and reported back: “He said ‘No, it’s a shite story’.”

This newspaper was not a screaming red-top tabloid but one of our most respected broadsheets. I don’t name it only because the journalist asked me to protect her. It isn’t alone in its tendency to publish only knocking copy about the NHS, as Roy Greenslade, once editor of the Daily Mirror, confirmed:

“I’m appalled but not surprised. The culture of the news desk, on both tabloids and broadsheets, is deeply negative. A story’s not a story unless it’s a knocking one. Andrew Neil, when he was editing the Sunday Times, used to say that specialists were “fans with typewriters”. Did I ever turn down a story because it wasn’t knocking enough? I’m sure I was as guilty of it as any other editor. I, also, was imbued with the negative culture.”

Maggie Brown, a journalist specialising in the media, agrees. “It’s the nightmare of every specialist. You’re suspected of being too close to the people you write about. The news desk has a preconceived notion of the story they want and, if you don’t bring it in, then your copy is spiked. If the story really gets big, they take it away from you so that they can give it the sort of spin they want.”

I am not trying to do a Martyn Lewis, pleading for more good news on TV and in the papers. I’m asking only that where it is found in the search for information, truth about important services should be published and not ignored. Had that journalist found NHS Direct to be a disaster, you can bet your last aspirin that would have made headlines.

Why can’t we have at least a column about the value of something good in the NHS if a journalist discovers it? Newspapers don’t attack other segments of our national life in the way they do the provision of healthcare; just take a look at the coverage of fashion, make-up, holidays, restaurants, books and films. Why, in the name of common sense, ignore a good review for a section of the NHS that all of us may need to use? As Maggie Brown said: “As a mother of four children, hearing about the strength and value of the service would be of great interest to me.” Is she the only mother who reads newspapers? I don’t think so.

There is more to worry about here than news-media dishonesty about the NHS. There’s the effect on patients. There are people terrified now of going to doctors or to A&E departments. There are people spending money they can’t afford to “go private” in the largely mistaken notion that they’ll get a better deal in the private sector. There are millions of pounds going into the pockets of new age charlatans of all sorts (iridologists and suchlike) as people flee from medical science to something much less safe. And, perhaps most damaging of all, young people who might have considered training to work in the health services are being thoroughly put off.

Who do these news editors think is going to look after them when they get ill? If the NHS has been fatally flawed by their ill treatment of it, there won’t be anyone.

Sean French is on holiday

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