Health boss goes to war over negative media coverage

10 Nov 2014 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Dec 2014

Valerie Watts. Picture courtesy of Irish News

The tension between the media and health authorities has exploded into open warfare and the dispute goes to the heart of the function of the Press. Scope investigates.

Valerie Watts, the new chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board had her day well planned when she briefed the press and media about the impact of health cuts across Northern Ireland. And by all accounts it was, generally speaking, a smooth and assured performance.

However she veered wildly off message when Seanin Graham of the Irish News turned up for her slot – and although nothing was published the next day, the following week all was revealed.

Watt’s press aides awoke that Wednesday to see their boss staring out of the front page of the paper, looking stern and unforgiving, standing in a spartan magnolia painted room. The walls are bare save for a light switch and the austere logo of the HSCB. Behind her is a supremely uncomfortable looking leather sofa. It is a stark image that makes her look uncompromising, authoritarian and not especially caring.

The headline reads: “Top administrator: I want TV station covering health services successes.”

The paper goes on to quote her as being “determined to take on the media” because they have created “a lack of confidence in front line staff” and says if she had her way and the resources, which she concedes she does not, she would run her own TV station showing success stories of the health service in Northern Ireland.

Work in Progress

Watts’ vision of a state-funded station pumping out images of doctors and nurses caring for patients and being successful in so doing seems a bizarre contribution to the debate about the future of the health service.

Her press team have pointed out that her comments were made as part of a wider reflection on media coverage of health matters. She believes that it is not balanced, and should be. She was not immediately availabe for interview and, to be fair, it would be difficult to do that when she has been reported as calling for a propaganda TV channel whilst massive demonstrations are being held against the closure of the MS respite centre at Dalriada Hospital. So we do not have her full argument at this stage.

But does she have a point? Ask any health press officer and they roll their eyes in despair at the media and there is a widespread belief amongst managers that coverage of health matters is distorted and negative, with positive news largely unreported.

This, they say, means that this vital area is misreported and so therefore misunderstood.

So we put this to Irish News editor Noel Doran who is sitting in an office almost as spartan as the room Watts posed in for her picture. His old office was demolished to make way for the paper’s new digital team and he is still debating with his Chair how to decorate it. Doran would be happy with old newspaper front pages. Jim Fitzpatrick favours fine art.

Difficult questions

Doran is no Nolan, he is a quiet and unassuming man, but he is not bowing the knee to the government press officers who massively outnumber his own staff.  He has “some sympathy” for Watts, but says his paper is not there to act as a cheerleader for the NI Executive, the Northern Ireland Health Service or what some politicians and business leaders call Northern Ireland PLC.

Noel Doran

We asked him to define news and he quoted Lord Northcliffe: “News is something that someone, somewhere does not want you to know." Yet as PR outfits by definition constantly pump out information that their organisations want people to know this leads to the simmering tension that lies at the heart of the relationship between press officers and journalists.

Doran says that his paper has a duty to hold public figures and public bodies to account. He makes no apology for it and says that health is of particular interest because it affects everyone.

For Doran this mission is sharpened because of the governance of Northern Ireland: “It’s a unique form of coalition institutionalised by the Good Friday Agreement, and there is no opposition, so you don’t get the scrutiny that you get in more conventional democracies.”

“We’re not setting out to be that “opposition” but it does make it important that we ask the difficult questions that people want answers to."

He smiles at the idea that his paper is responsible for low morale in health staff saying that he doesn’t recall any stories attacking front line staff and that 99% of critical stories are about management decisions, policy and behaviour. And he points out that the paper has a weekly health section and that he is open to comments about what should be in it.

Doran claims that the response from health bodies has been defensive and obstructive to the point of paranoia. It is his view that many senior civil servants were traditionally immune from scrutiny and resent being questioned and avoid rather than embrace the need for transparency.

He cites three examples.

When Graham wrote a piece with the help of a whistle blower revealing that six nurses had been linked to the abuse of children at the former Lissue and Forster Green psychiatric hospitals between the 1970s and early 1990s the HSCB reacted by calling in the Cabinet Office to do an investigation into the source of the leak questioning 80 “suspects” at a cost of £33,000. Graham subsequently won an all-Ireland award for her investigative work.

Former Minister Michael McGimpsey took the unprecedented step of making a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about not just one story but multiple stories published over a series of months. This complaint was subsequently withdrawn.

Doran further claims that health bodies are so reluctant to answer many questions put to them that the paper often needs to submit Freedom of Information requests to get answers to them and that there is a growing trend whereby the authorities refuse to answer on the grounds that providing the information would be too expensive and in one recent case saying that they would give an answer if the paper would pay several hundred pounds for it.

So Doran believes his paper has a duty to ask awkward questions and that health authorities are keen not to answer them and by doing so are attempting to suppress bad news.

It is a pity that, beyond her opening sally, Watts is unable to expand on her theories for the present, because there is an important debate to be had. Key policy issues currently do not get covered, and never will when the media and health bodies are at each others’ throats.

Maybe if civil servants reflected on the fact that media outlets are not an extension of their PR machine, never should be and hopefully never will be and that legitimate questions should be answered, that might be a good start to re-defining the relationship.

And maybe if that ever happened and mutual understanding was established, the result would be better, more balanced coverage of health issues instead of this endless game of attack and defence.

Watts or any of her colleagues are very welcome to join the debate on Scope. We would like to hear from them to ensure that this debate is properly balanced.

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