Michael CrossMichael Cross

Last week, like other journalists who report on NHS IT, I found myself in demand. One call was from a TV researcher wanting to know why the health service was haemorrhaging money on dodgy computers. I replied that the truth was more complicated and that the NHS is actually spending less on IT than it had planned. We agreed that this angle would not be appropriate for the programme.

By then, of course, everyone knew what the real story was. Last Friday’s newslists – rough schedules of the following day’s newspaper prepared for daily planning conferences – contained the item: “1000 – National Audit Office reports on new NHS computer disaster”. Some papers jumped the gun, notably the London Evening Standard with a two-page profile of Connecting for Health chief executive,Richard Granger, under a headline including the word “catastrophe”.

So, if Granger and his colleagues are looking for confirmation of press bias against their efforts, there you have it. Never mind the facts, the overall “narrative” – to borrow an awful academic term – is that NHS computing is a disaster. It’s up there on the news agenda alongside fashionable narratives about judges letting paedophiles roam the streets and supermodels taking class-A drugs. In general, a report reinforcing one of these narratives will get more space than one contradicting it. Which is why the old saw that “dog bites man is no news” is untrue – so long as the dog is a celeb.

‘Tall poppies’

How on earth did we get to this point? In a two-hour interview a couple of weeks back, one of several Granger gave during the run-up to the NAO’s report, the NHS IT chief gave me his own thoughts. To summarise comments made at some length, he attributed the media verdict to a British obsession with cutting down tall poppies (“a little ironic, in my case”). The consequence, he said, was a climate of intimidation in which public servants become reluctant to innovate.

This is a serious charge. It seems to place critical press coverage of the NPfIT alongside the reporting of the MMR panic, where the authors of the immunisation scare now have deaths on their conscience. Responsible journalists should take the charge seriously.

Precedents for controlling irresponsible journalism exist. Harsh contempt laws, gentlemen’s agreements with chief constables and, in the case of the Guardian at least, a certain self-censorship on some matters concerning human dignity, already ensure that many stories that society judges harmful never get onto the page.

There is another avenue for restraint, perhaps more appropriate in the NPfIT’s case. In an important book, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, John Lloyd of the FT suggests the idea of a “civic journalism”. Here, reporters take more responsibility for the long-term consequences of, for example, treating all politicians as liars.

Balance of criticism

For what it’s worth, I agree. However I believe that “civic journalism” would give the NPfIT an even harder time than the current shallow “catastrophe” agenda does.

Civic journalism would certainly move the NPfIT higher up the newslist, reflecting its importance to the NHS, the government’s wider reform agenda and to the future of healthcare. A civic minded newspaper would give it a great deal more space than roaming paedophiles, let alone snorting supermodels.

And while a civic journalism would certainly give more play to successes (and not just as “gee whizz” stories) it would not ignore the failures, rows and delays. For the simple reason that journalists do not make these things up. We hear about them, from our readers, colleagues and friends, every single day. Many such reports are at least as true as some lines we get from the DH, for example Granger’s assertion last Friday that his programme began from a “standing start”.

Finally, I do not believe that critical reporting of a major, highly spun government initiative is necessarily a British obsession. I have worked as a reporter in well over 30 countries and lived in three (France, Japan and the US) where government IT disasters make large headlines. I have lived in others, in the Middle East and Africa, where they do not. Broadly speaking, the places where the media report critically on government IT programmes are better than those where they do not. I am proud to be a citizen of one.

I cannot defend everything my colleagues write or broadcast about the NPfIT, but broadly speaking I believe it is right and important that we do so, critically.

And when Dr Johnson defined patriotism as the last resort of a scoundrel, he was attacking not patriotism but scoundrels.

Michael Cross is a freelance journalist. He has written about healthcare computing matters, among many other things, since 1978.