Author Archives: griffinkate

Junior doctors v spin doctors: next meeting

7pm Thursday February 18th, Oxford Town Hall

“Grassroots junior doctors have been central to countering government spin, using social media and other strategies to generate stories and coverage in a truly 21st Century campaign”

So says Oxford-based Dr Rachel Clarke, former TV journalist turned junior doctor, who has been involved in coordinating that media strategy at a local and national level.

Rachel will be a guest speaker at our February branch meeting, to talk about the issues at stake in the junior doctors dispute, the campaign of disinformation being waged by the government, and how junior doctors have used social media, in particular, to expose their lies.

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When “local” means 90 miles away

The Oxford Mail’s owners are planning to move production of the paper, and its sister titles, to Newport in South Wales. Plans recently announced would see all of Newsquest’s Oxfordshire and Wiltshire titles, including the Oxford Mail, Oxford Times and Witney Gazette, being sub-edited from this distant “hub”.

Oxford to Newport mapAs a result of the planned move, 20 experienced journalists face a stark choice: move to a completely different part of the UK or lose their jobs. But the impact on their lives is only part of the story: what about the impact on the communities these newspapers are supposed to be serving?

Oxford & District Branch does not believe that a local paper can be truly local when it’s being produced by people who have no connection with the local area whatsoever. The people hired to sub-edit the papers in the new “subbing hub” are unlikely to know, or particularly care, about Oxfordshire, its people, places and issues. And they won’t get a chance to learn, either – the new hub will be a factory-style set-up where workers handle papers from all over the country rather than specialising in one area.

Right now the subbing is done by experienced (although overworked) local journalists, based in Newsquest Oxfordshire’s offices on Osney Mead. If they are replaced by a production line 90 miles away, where the workers are fresh out of college, how can the quality of local newspapers not suffer?

Unfortunately, this seems to be part of a national strategy for Newsquest, which owns local papers all over the UK. It’s already happened in Darlington, York, Blackburn and Glasgow. The impact on quality has been well documented by Hold the Front Page  in a piece headlined Newsquest’s Little Hub of Horrors. Readers of the Oxford Mail and Times and other local titles, who accepted Newsquest’s justification for a major price rise last year on the grounds that they were paying for improved quality, may well feel they have been taken for a ride.

As a union, we’re fighting not just to save the jobs of skilled local sub-editors, but also to save local papers from spiralling into decline as a result of this harmful cost-cutting. Over the next few months we’ll be asking people to send a strong “Say No to Newport” message to Simon O’Neill, editor of the Newsquest Oxfordshire titles. To support us, please sign our petition to keep local production for local papers. Click on the postcard to sign the petition! We’ve also printed off stacks of ( real) postcards with that message and we’re asking people to sign them and post them off to Simon O’Neill. If you’d like us to send you a handful of postcards to share, please get in touch!

Postcard saying "Keep my local paper local"

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Are you getting our emails?

We send out a short monthly email newsletter to all Oxford & District NUJ members, giving details of upcoming meetings/events and sharing relevant news. Lots of people have subscribed to this using their work email address, but we would prefer to have personal email addresses for our members. Then you don’t lose touch with your union as soon as you change jobs!

If you’re receiving the branch newsletter on your work email, or not receiving it at all, please contact us on with your personal email address and we’ll update our records.

This month we sent out our mailing by good old fashioned post. If you didn’t receive it, that suggests we probably don’t have the correct postal address for you. If that’s the case, please email us with your home address and we’ll set it right.


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International conference on health journalism

The NHS is facing restructuring as well as huge budget cuts. How can journalists keep the public informed about what’s going on? And how can health service PRs continue to do their job in an ethical way? The First, Do No Harm conference brings together a host of experts from journalism and health to discuss the issues. This international conference takes place at Coventry University from Wednesday 14th to Friday 16th May.

One of the expert speakers at the event will be Dr John Lister of Oxford. If any journalists or PR professionals from Oxford & District Branch are interested in going, please drop us a line!


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May Day march for workers’ rights

We will be joining other local unions tomorrow on the Oxford May Day march, organised by the Oxford Trades Council, in support of a living wage and an end to zero hours contracts. Please join us if you can, to walk behind the branch banner.

Assemble at 11.30am on Manzil Way (off the Cowley Road). We will end the march with a rally in Bonn Square.

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Why is Witney Town Council excluding reporters?

The Oxford Mail‘s Witney reporter has been thrown out of a town council meeting – for the fourth time. On Monday 10th March, the council met to discuss the future of two public buildings, Langdale Hall and the Corn Exchange. But the reporter covering the meeting was asked to leave after town councillors voted nearly-unanimously (with one exception) to exclude the press. This means that discussions of public interest will not be publicly reported. This is the fourth time in less than a year that a reporter has been excluded from a town council meeting.

As a branch, we are concerned that Witney Town Council is not allowing local reporters to do their job. We have written to Cllr Peter Dorward, Mayor of Witney, to ask on what grounds reporters are being asked to leave meetings. We believe there are important issues of principle at stake about transparency in the way decisions are reached on how public money is spent. We have therefore asked the mayor to supply us with information about what  guidelines and criteria are being used to decide when it is acceptable to conduct council business in closed session.

If the council was hoping to avoid public scrutiny by this move, the plan has backfired. In the absence of being able to report the actual meeting, the Oxford Mail reported being thrown out and gave a potted history of previous attempts to exclude the press. This was followed up with an angry editorial describing the councillors as “silly burghers” and arguing that “transparency is clearly a dirty word to the secretive folk who run Witney Town Council. ” The story was picked up by the Guardian and by Hold The Front Page. So much for keeping things under wraps.

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Battle for the book sector: branch meeting, Thursday

Our branch meeting this coming week (Thursday 13 February) will focus on Oxford’s publishing sector. Fiona Swarbrick, NUJ national organiser for magazines and books, will lead a discussion on rebuilding unions across Oxford’s book (also journal, digital and multimedia) publishers.

Oxford is a seat of education, academia and book lovers. Yet most of the publishers now based here relocated to the area in the past 20 years, derecognising the NUJ as they came, as part of a bid to drive down pay and conditions. Butterworth, Heinemann, Macmillan and Routledge moved here from London or the Home Counties, resulting in the break up of some of the best organised chapels in the union. A salary survey we did in 2006 at Harcourt (now Pearson), which incorporated Heinemann, showed that salaries had dropped from around 80% of average white collar earnings in 1990 to less than 60%. Hard won terms and conditions that seem barely believable in today’s climate were stripped away. A culture of stress, overwork and in some cases bullying emerged. We want to right that wrong.

Come to our meeting on Thursday 13th February at Oxford Town Hall, 7pm. We’ll be discussing how we can improve pay and conditions in the publishing sector. This is a branch initiative, which should involve raising our public profile in relation to book publishing, so everyone who cares about the issue can get involved. Please come and join the discussion.

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The new NHS: does anybody know who’s in charge?

Kate Griffin of the Oxford & District branch represented the NUJ at a May meeting organised by the Medical Journalists’ Association in London. This is her (somewhat belated) write-up of the event.

Who’s in charge of the changed NHS? That was the question being addressed by the speakers at the Medical Journalists’ Association event in May. The Health & Social Care Act became law at the start of April, but it will be some time before all the ramifications become clear.

Nicholas Timmins, King’s Fund consultant, said that the NHS has a change management programme “so large you can actually see it from space”. Although Andrew Lansley’s agenda might have seemed obscure to some, he actually laid out his intentions quite clearly in a 2005 speech. (I think Timmins was referring to the speech entitled The Future of Health and Public Service Regulation, which is still available online.) Essentially, he was trying to introduce a market element into our health service, which is very similar to what Labour were doing. Lansley was less interested in what he calls the “wiring” – the structure – and more interested in the principle of pro-competitive reform.

Timmins ended by asking: “Where does power now lie? God only knows.”

Bonnie Green, patient advocate, spoke next. She is former chair of the Richmond LINk. (LINks have been abolished by the Act and replaced with Healthwatch teams.) She pointed out that there’s more patient engagement built into the new NHS structure than you might think; NHS England (formerly the NHS Commissioning Board) has a dedicated Patient and Information Directorate, and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have a lay Board member for patient involvement. But it’s too early to say whether the principle of “No decision about me, without me” is really working for patients in the new NHS.

Jon Sacker, communications lead for NHS Clinical Commissioners, had a different take on privatisation. “We have a fixed envelope. Privatisation is another way of talking about rationing.” He mentioned the new Commissioning Support Units, which do what the name suggests: support CCGs in their commissioning functions. (The CCGs still have legal accountability.) But it’s useful for journalists to know about these units because they’re almost like a PR agency working for the CCG, responding to Freedom of Information requests and supplying (or not supplying) data.

Lindsay M Davies, epidemiology professor at Nottingham University, brought out the public health aspects of the Health & Social Care Act. Local authorities have new responsibilities for the health of their populations, but it’s not entirely clear who is responsible in an outbreak or disaster.

She reminded us of the often-forgotten point that the UK has a devolved healthcare system, and the Health & Social Care Act only affects England. As a result, Public Health England and Public Health Wales are very different.

She also sounded a note of caution about the way public health officials are being pushed towards jobs in the civil service or local authorities. “Where is the independent voice?”

The final speaker was Roger Taylor of the website Dr Foster, which provides comparative information on health and social care services. He is also the author of God Bless the NHS.

He said that there is a gap between  “what most people want and what the policy people want”, because patients tend to be conservative. “The money has run out and the willingness to change is not there, so we can expect cracks to appear in the next 12 months.”

Looking at patient-reported outcomes yields some unpleasant surprises: some patients actually self-report as better before an operation than afterwards!

He said that if markets within the NHS truly deliver a better, more cost-efficient service, that’s great. But we’re missing out on the data to make comparisons and draw our own conclusions because private suppliers of healthcare services are hiding behind commercial confidentiality. And that won’t wash, because we need to formulate future policy based on proper evidence.

He ended with a plea to listen more to patients; currently there’s a culture of not trusting patients to know what is best, of ignoring what they say, and that has to stop.

Paul Bradshaw of the Help Me Investigate blogs was chairing the event, and took many questions after summing up. Questions raised but not fully answered included “How do working people engage with patient advocacy groups when they meet during work hours?” and “Why do we have such a complex system in such a comparatively small country?”

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Turning the page on media sexism

It’s time to talk about women in the media. Are you tired of the continued trivialisation of women’s issues? Tired of misogynistic reporting about successful women? A panel of women speakers will be discussing the issue at a free event on 26 June at 6pm.

All NUJ members of any gender are welcome. To book a place or find out further details, contact  Lena Calvert, NUJ Equality Officer, on


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The new NHS: what it means for journalists

There was laughter in the room when John Lister ironically described the new NHS structure as “streamlined” and shared a Guardian graphic of the new bureaucracy. It set the tone for the NUJ’s Reporting on our health services masterclass, aimed at helping health reporters get to grips with confusing changes. Lister, senior lecturer in health journalism at Coventry University, identified some of the main issues for journalists:

  • access to information
  • getting that information in a timely manner
  • getting a range of information – not just press releases, but also Board papers, statistics, other info that isn’t specifically targeted at the press
  • transparency
  • access to expert analysis. (You have the info, but can you make sense of it? Is there a specialist who can put it in context or add insight?)

He spoke about the slippery nature of transparency; for example, NHS England (the new name for the NHS Commissioning Board) is relatively open to reporting, but the real nitty-gritty decisions are made by Local Area Teams (LATs).

Many of the bodies that you might want to report on are not obliged to let you do so. CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) have no requirement to meet in public, Commissioning Support Services are not public bodies and Foundation Trusts have no requirement to publish papers or agendas from each board meeting.

Shaun Lintern, of the Health Service Journal and Nursing Times, raised another barrier to quality health reporting: the lack of paid health reporting posts. It’s a deep irony that health service cuts are being underreported because of staffing cuts in our own newsrooms. Shaun was the man who broke the Mid Staffs story, but he wasn’t even a specialist health reporter at the time. He was just a regular reporter on the West Midlands Express & Star who picked up the story from a colleague who was too busy to follow it up. On that day, six years ago, he had no idea that he was about to break a huge story and become one of the country’s best-known health reporters.

He said that we “need to get back to old-fashioned journalism” – not just accepting press releases but digging around, talking to people and so on. He described staying up until the early hours reading the Board papers of health service bodies. “[The papers] won’t have a story – but they might have a clue to the story. Then you can talk to someone.” But he believes that for this approach to be successful, editors need to take the lead, giving reporters time and permission to attend conferences, read through health service paperwork and so on.

He moved to the Health Service Journal over a year ago and the Express & Star has not replaced him yet.

Other comments from Shaun: the new structure is without a doubt not permanent and will almost certainly change in the next couple of years. He believes that the trend for CCGs to merge with each other will continue, because individually they’re too small to be sustainable.

The next speaker was Branwen Jeffreys, a BBC journalist speaking in a personal capacity. She commented that GPs have “taken a step inside the establishment tent” from their traditional position as relative outsiders. 90% of public contact with the NHS is through GPs, but in the past they have seemed less part of the system.

She regretted the loss of Community Health Councils, the “awkward squad” who questioned decisions, and wondered what will replace them.

She raised the issue of underspending as important: why are some departments not spending their full budget when there are patients waiting for treatment? It’s an important issue because only a small proportion of a department’s budget can be carried over to the next financial year. The rest is lost.

Her final tip for journalists was that hospital doctors are more willing to speak out than they used to be, as long as they’re guaranteed anonymity.

Paul Bradshaw (of this very blog) spoke about the public information crisis. In the West Midlands, one and a half health journalists are covering an area with a population of two million. How can you provide in-depth coverage when you’re stretched so thin? He pointed out that many activists are becoming de facto journalists and commented that “it’s the non-journalists who do the digging, but they often don’t know how to tell stories.” For a story to work, you can’t just dump facts on a page; you need a narrative and a human interest angle.

He mentioned the Department of Health website’s recent move to the website, and there was a groan in the room. The new version of the site makes it harder to find information that used to be easily accessible. He added that some of it has proved impossible to find at all.

He gave some more useful tips for sourcing information:

  • Many CCGs have a news feed that you can subscribe to.
  • It’s worth looking at other bodies involved in delivering health and social care, such as local authorities. They might be a good source of stories or comments that don’t fit the official NHS spin.
  • The NHS Information Centre is a good resource but there are cost restrictions on accessing the information and these may get tighter soon.

The discussion from the floor was lively and raised some interesting points. One patient advocate pointed out that patients have more power now and may often have insider information. It’s a mistake to use them just for anecdotes and human interest stories.

During the discussion Branwen Jefferies made the point that it’s hard to work out which problems are caused by structural change and which are caused by a lack of money. We discussed the pricing of services and she reminded us to challenge the assumption that everything is cheaper “in the community”. John Lister added that the unit costs of A&E departments are surprisingly low. They don’t get shut down to save money, they get shut down to soften up communities for other closures.

One trainee reporter from Brighton shared a recent scoop about the new 111 service and how it has doubled the workload for paramedics because poorly trained phone staff send them out on unnecessary calls, including one to a cat with diarrhoea. Her story was picked up by that day’s Metro – sadly without any payment or acknowledgement!

We also discussed mortality rates and how hospitals with high rates will state they don’t prove anything while hospitals with low rates will mention the fact on their websites. Shaun Lintern said that they “may not prove anything – but they’re a smoke-signal, a sign something may be wrong.”

Paul Bradshaw said that he believes health data will be among the last public data to “go open” for use by the public, journalists and statisticians.

We also very quickly discussed bullying, including intimidation of whistleblowers. John Lister described bullying in the NHS as “rife” and “tolerated as a management style”. He added that there is still no support for whistleblowers, so how do we expect them to speak out?

We were running out of time, but touched on the issue of health markets and competition. Anna Wagstaff of the NUJ’s Oxford & District branch said that health services across Europe are being reorganised on the assumption that opening up services to competition makes them better, but she doesn’t know of any evidence that it does – or that it doesn’t. There just hasn’t been enough research into this.

John Lister wrapped up the session by sharing a useful link for health reporters:

A final thought: it’s clear that health reporters aren’t going to get the real stories handed to them in a press release. If a story is really explosive like the Mid Staffs scandal, there will be forces working to keep it covered up. That makes life tougher for working journalists. But it’s also a golden opportunity to combine old-fashioned digging with 21st-century data-wrangling and produce absolutely top-class journalism in the process.

Transcripts of the event are available at This blog post has been cross-posted to Help Me Investigate (Health), which is a great resource for investigative journalists.

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