Shooting the messenger

Whoever does the choreography for the British media these days must have one hell of a sense of timing. Or a perverse sense of humour, perhaps. What were the chances of the Nursing and Midwifery Council striking off Margaret Haywood (the nurse who secretly filmed the tragic chapters of neglect of the elderly at an NHS hospital in Brighton) on the very day that the Crown Prosecution Service announced that there were no grounds for the prosecution of either Damian Green, the Opposition Home Affairs spokesman, or Christopher Galley, the civil servant working in the Home Office who had fed him leaked information?

Margaret Haywood had tried in vain, it seems, to bring her concerns about the care of the elderly to the attention of those in charge of the Royal Sussex Hospital. When nothing was done (and indeed, things got even worse) in desperation she ended up collaborating with Panorama’s investigative TV journalists by carrying a concealed camera and microphone and filming appalling hospital hygiene and infection control and several examples of elderly people being ignored, left in pain and distress, and generally without proper care, comfort or support. As a result she has been struck off.

Similarly, the civil servant in the Damian Green case faces the ignominy of an internal civil
service disciplinary process and almost certain dismissal. I would advise him not to waste too much time waiting for a glowing reference from his erstwhile employers. All the more
galling for him then, that it was simultaneously confirmed that there was never the slightest substance in the claim that serious issues of public security were at stake. This had been the version advanced with such high drama as the boys in blue ‘lifted’ Damian Green from his home and family, searched his House of Commons office without a warrant, and frogmarched him down to the local nick. Shades of missiles and their potential for deployment within 40 minutes, methinks?

Bad news
Indeed, it turns out that the content of the Galley-Green ‘leak’ was not even in the ‘Highly
Confidential’ category, and the only sense in which it was even remotely ‘Confidential’ was that it placed the Home Office (and hence the Government) in a bad light at a difficult time. Similarly, Margaret Haywood’s whistleblowing took place in 2005, just as the Government was
claiming to be getting on top of the hospital hygiene crisis, having made it a top priority for the NHS and its staff and managers. In keeping the bad news away from the public, was this really to protect the public, or the backsides of managers and senior politicians? In their eagerness to sacrifice the little guy in order to protect those upstairs (and themselves), those in the middle have a hopeless conflict of interest.

You might well think that the wrong people have paid the price for two events that should not
occur in a properly functioning society. In one sense I share this view, and the frustration of those who ended up breaking the ethical code of their respective professions. But break it they did, and once my blood pressure subsided, I realised that despite the unfairness of it all, those sitting in judgement over them had very little option but to indicate their disapproval pour encourager les autres. Whatever they said in public, I am sure that the ethical dilemma could not have been lost on them.

We may never learn the fate of those whose job it should have been to ensure that the elderly patients were being properly cared for, nor get to the bottom of what was really behind the decision to arrest Mr Green amid high drama, rather than simply inviting him down to the nick at a time of his choosing and convenience, in order to assist the police with their enquiries on a more voluntary basis.

And that, for me, is the reason for the residual unsatisfactory taste that I am left with. The determination of officialdom to silence the whistleblower has – in both of these cases – simply drawn even greater attention to the very issues that they were seeking to place in the public domain in the first place. They both knew the risks they were taking, but were driven by the belief that the public had a right to know about the matters in question.

It is not a mile apart from the case not that long ago, of the teacher who filmed classroom anarchy in order to get someone to take seriously their claims of how extreme the behaviour of some of the children had become. And yes, the teacher was sacked for unprofessional
behaviour, abusing the rights of these feral kiddywinks, and the children in question continued on their abusive, selfish and disruptive way without being ‘excluded’ or even threatened with ‘exclusion’ – as a trade-off for their parents taking no further action against the school for the breach of their childrens’ rights.

Proper channels
In all three cases, the argument was advanced that there are systems in place for dealing with the concerns of the whistleblowers, and there could never be any justification for acting unethically or unprofessionally, taking the law into one’s own hands instead of going down proper channels.

In Margaret Haywood’s case one gathers that the ‘proper channels’ were awash with faeces and urine, and it may well have been the same story at the Home Office at the moment when it was discovered that their staff had licensed 5,000 illegal immigrants to act as security guards, and had given security clearance to another, to act as a cleaner at the House of Commons itself. A good day to wear bicycle clips I would have thought.

In Australia a few years ago, one Dental Board (the State-based GDC equivalent) equipped its staff with covert cameras, and sent them off to visit the surgeries of dentists to secretly film their infection control practices. When challenged, the Board maintained that it had a duty to protect the public and this was a higher duty than the ethical or legal responsibilities and protections in relation to privacy and confidentiality.

Another Dental Council, in another part of the world, struck off a dentist for filming people without their consent. Meanwhile, the catch-all ‘public safety’ argument is why the average Londoner is captured on CCTV over 600 times a day without their consent being necessary, although I am pleased to hear that the Government is reviewing the legal protections in relation to how the information thus gathered can then be used. Not before time.

While the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) clearly doesn’t approve of whistleblowing, at least Margaret Haywood stood up to be counted and allowed her identity to be known, and she has suffered the consequences. Yet anyone making a complaint about a nurse, or any other health professional, is allowed to preserve their anonymity if they wish to.

The GDC, like the GMC and the NMC, now allows and acts upon information provided anonymously (previously it was necessary for an affidavit to be sworn and witnessed). And while the anonymous whistleblower in this situation gets complete protection, the healthcare professional on the end of the accusations does not.

It is clear that we have got ourselves into a right old mess over conflicts of interest, whistleblowing, the status of leaks, and what information should and should not be in the public domain. Apparently we can trust the Government to get these judgements right, but not Opposition MPs, or nurses, or civil servants, or teachers, or doctors and dentists. There are merits on both sides of some of these arguments, but intuitively it does not feel that we have got the balance right. The present arrangements, as John Reid famously observed when taking over the Home Office, are ‘not fit for purpose’.

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