Category Archives: reporting

We’ve turned whistleblower!

Adrian Harris 2

Professor Adrian Harris, consultant medical oncologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, addressing the meeting. © Peter McIntyre

The Oxford NUJ branch is blowing the whistle on NHS England for its lack of transparency and its attempts to frustrate efforts to hold it to account for its decision relating to the future of Oxfordshire’s diagnostic cancer scanning services.

The question we are asking is this:

Why is NHS England being so secretive about the basis for its decision regarding the future of Oxfordshire’s PET-CT diagnostic imaging services? What is the basis for its decision to take this service away from the world-class radiology team at the Churchill hospital, where it operates as an integrated part of a world-class cancer care service? Why has NHS England awarded preferred bidder status to a private company that operates from mobile units, and has no-one with a licence to administer the radioactive substances used in PET-CT?

This are questions that should normally be posed by reporters, and our local journalists are certainly doing their best to get answers. It is a question also for Oxfordshire’s Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which is empowered to ‘call-in’ questionable decisions made by our public healthcare services, and they too have been doing their best to get answers.

Our NUJ branch got involved because we are alarmed at the lengths to which NHS England seems to be prepared to go to avoid being scrutinised and held to account for this decision. It has not addressed questions of substance relating to the impact the change to the service will have on the quality and safety of patient care. It seems intent on stifling those who seek to voice their concerns, and withholding information that the public has a right to know.

The Oxford NUJ branch is saying that it is not OK for public bodies to hide behind legal threats, to seek to silence critics or to create a climate of fear in public bodies.

We took the unusual step of calling a public meeting in Oxford Town Hall to try to build up a picture of what is going on. We posted the speakers’ presentation on our YouTube channel. You can view the full playlist here. Video recordings are courtesy of Peter McIntyre.

What they said

We invited Professor Adrian Harris, a consultant medical oncologist at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, to tell us the story so far from the perspective of those currently running the service at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust (OUHT).

Adrian explained that the quality of PET-CT scans matters because they change treatment decision in up 40% of cases. Referring to correspondence from NHS England, he argue they had built their case on “incorrect data to force the issue to allow InHealth to come in and disrupt an outstanding service,” and that they were blocking access to key information by claiming there were “discussions” and a “legal review” that do not exist.

“NHS England have not told the truth, they have put legal pressure on doctors, they don’t reply to emails, when corrected in things they don’t respond and the role of Bruno [Dr Bruno Holthof is Chief Executive Officer of Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust] in not taking us through what the doctors say, what the Trust wants to do, passing on messages very worrying to me. We have to have an open access. How can we have an explanation, not only just from NHS England but the local Trust leaders as to why they are behaving like that?”

You can see his full presentation here (11 mins)

We also invited Tamsin Allen, a partner at Bindmans law firm who specialises in defamation law and has long experience representing whistleblowers, to comment on the legal issues.

Tamsin talked about the letter NHS England’s lawyers had sent to the OUHT, warning them that any statement that suggests that the result of awarding the contract to InHealth puts patient safety at risk or compromises the provision of cancer care and research in the health system “would be defamatory if repeated to any third party”.

“That’s an incredibly broad and sweeping claim, and it’s also legally wrong,” said Tamsin. She questioned a later clarification from NHS England that the letter had been intended as helpful advice regarding possible defamation suits from others, rather than a direct threat. “Lawyers are used to using language precisely particularly when talking about the law. That was a deliberate sentence. It’s an intimidating statement.”

You can view her presentation here (14 mins)

We also invited Seamus Dooley, the Assistant General Secretary of the NUJ, to talk about the role of a strong local press in championing the public interest by scrutinising the behaviour of those in charge of our public services.

“This is not about the law. This is about bullying and unacceptable behaviour. From the NUJ’s perspective, we are under no doubt that what this is intended is to have a chilling effect which inhibits debate and inhibits questions. It is about the use of law to close down debate. Does it mean journalists will stop asking questions? I hope not.”

You can view his presentation here (5 mins).

The meeting was chaired by Anna Wagstaff, Secretary of the Oxford and District NUJ branch. In her opening remarks she said, “This is behaviour you could maybe expect from a tobacco company but not from our health service. We’d like this to be a practical meeting focused on how we can bring some accountability and transparency to this process to ensure decision are made in the best interests of the public that the NHS is meant to serve.”

You can view her presentation here (2 mins)

You can see the Banbury Guardian’s report (26 June 2019) on their battle to get access to the relevant correspondence between NHS England and the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust here.

You can see the Oxford Mail report of the meeting here

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Council cuts: we’re hacking for Oxfordshire

Journalists at the hack day.

Bureau Local organised a hack day on local government budgets last weekend. There were five hack gatherings across the country. I attended the one in London, along with fellow Oxford branch member Gill Oliver.

Was it worth the sacrifice of a Saturday? Yes, I think it was. These guys are onto something important.

As they say in their blurb about this project, “Councils across the country are planning cuts to vital local services in next year’s budgets ‒ including adult and children’s social care, sexual health support, alcohol and substance rehabilitation and youth groups. With an estimated funding shortfall of £5.8 billion over the next two years, and having already cut back many services they don’t legally have to provide, local authorities in England face an unprecedented challenge. Not just to maintain ‘frontline’ services, but, in some extreme cases, to avoid bankruptcy.”

Bureau Local isn’t offering solutions. It’s doing something better. It is helping promote informed debate about the problems and possible solutions at a local level, by skilling up its growing network of collaborators to research their local data and publish stories based on what they find.

The preparation

In the run up to the Hack Day, Bureau Local had brought together an impressive “local government roundtable” to get ideas about some of the key issues to look for. Included on the 15-strong panel were:

  • leader of Peterborough Council
  • director of corporate resources at Leicestershire County Council
  • public affairs officer, County Councils Network
  • research and policy officer, Women’s Budget Group
  • director of the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort
  • director of the Business and Local Government Data Research Unit
  • committee member, Disabled People Against Cuts.

The message coming out of councils themselves is that there is an urgent need for discussions on the state of local government finances, and the implications for the services people rely on, to extend beyond local government circles.

The reasons why that isn’t happening much at present became clear to us when we saw that data. Even leaving aside the fraught heading of housing, local authority spending covers a huge swathe of vital areas. Making sense of it requires factoring in inflation and demographic changes, and remembering that “savings” may mean doing less of something or doing it cheaper, but could also mean charging people more for the service, or securing a grant or ‘viring’ funds that had been allocated to another part of the budget.

This is a job for an army of local government reporters, and where they exist they do a great job. But they don’t exist in large parts of the country, and where they do, their numbers have been slashed – local authority press offices are replete with journalists who used to work holding those same authorities to account.

The panel offered helpful advice about the sort of things we should all be looking for.

  • Children’s services: Lack of local authority homes. Private sector charging too much.
  • Children’s services: “Safely” reducing the number of looked after children. Is this possible given statutory requirements? Perhaps through early help, but early help budgets being cut back; suggestion that councils now keep looked after children arrangements under constant review and some may end earlier (saving money).
  • “Moderate/critical” eligibility for Adult Social Care. (If you’re perceived as having a social network of support then you will not be seen as critical).
  • Moving homelessness ‒ moving people around the country. Single parents losing support networks, disabled people cannot take their care support package with them, pays for their assistants.

The data

We were given access to more data and information than we could process in a month of Saturdays. Key among them was an Excel file compiled by Bureau Local showing the “outturn” (government speak, I’m told, for actual spending) of most local authorities in England over the past five years, broken down into fairly detailed spending categories on which they are obliged to report, and adjusted for inflation.

Added to each local authority entry was a link to the relevant minutes of local council draft budgets for 2018/2019, which in turn gave links to a series of pdfs giving details of different aspects of the draft budget – what money is coming in from where, where it’s being spent, “pressures” ‒ additional spend not anticipated in original budget (pretty mega for adult social care and children’s social care), and then the “savings” agreed to help pay for them, impact on resources etc.

Questions about what things mean and why they didn’t add up could be posed and answered using Bureau Local’s Slack chat channel. As luck would have it, however, Gill and I found a dedicated source of information sitting a few seats away in the form of Neil Lawrence, digital development manager at Oxford City Council, a veteran of local authority budgets from his time at Cherwell district council – and a champion of open data.

What did we find?

Here are a few things that stood out for us:

Children’s services

Taking inflation into account, total spending on children’s social care has gone up by more than 57% between 2014/12 and 2017/18, despite a 90% drop in spending on children’s services for asylum seekers from £3,096,000 in 2016/2017 to £309,000 in 2017/2018 and an almost 99% drop in funding for “Other children’s and families services”, from £2,060,000 in 2014/2015 to £39,000 in 2017/2018.

This raises many questions, including: is this down to an increase in kids in care? If so why? Is it down to increased costs in paying for services for looked after children? If so why? Are we reaching the point at which there will be no money to pay for anything that is not a statutory requirement? And if so, what happens next?

Adult care

Total spending on adult social care has stayed relatively stable, rising by around 3% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018 (from £192.5 million to £198.4 million), which is probably less than the rise in the elderly population over the same time period (those figures were probably somewhere on the Slack channel, if we’d had the time to find them). The draft budget for 2018/2019 reveals “pressures” (additional spend not anticipated in original budget – as explained above) of £10.6 million, and proposes savings of around £1.5 million to be made by changes to charging policy – who has to contribute how much.

This is the mechanism by which more elderly people are being required to pay more for essential services due to the lack of government policy on sustainable adult social care. What will the implications be for whom? And could cuts to support services (or raised charges), imposed to try to make up the shortfall, be fuelling greater costs down the line? Maybe in services like social care activities, down by 54% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, or assistive equipment, down by 56%, or support for carers – who are subsidising the whole system often at a big price to themselves – down by 54%. Good to see, however, a tripling of spending on “Information and early intervention”.

Public health

Public health? Who knew that responsibility for public health has been devolved from national to local authority level? There has to be a reason behind the data that shows that Oxfordshire County Council cut spending on helping people quit smoking by 99% between 2014/2015 and 2017/2018, from £1.08 million to a mere £2000.

A hack day for Oxfordshire

More generally, we learned that when it comes to data-led journalism, what matters is less your Excel skills (pretty much guesswork in my case) than knowing what data exist and how to get access, understanding exactly what is being measured, having lots and lots of time to sift through it, look for trends and key indicators, and then having lots and lots more time to line up the data of interest and use it to ask the right questions to the right people to get the story.

We also learned that it is fun and helpful to work collectively on big datasets with people who may be coming at the same data from various perspectives. So at the February branch meeting we intend to propose organising an Oxfordshire hack day.

If you are interested in attending or helping organise the hack day, let us know at

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Why are journalists denied access to immigration detention centres?

campsfield pic contrast

Campsfield immigration removal centre, Kidlington, near Oxford

The Oxford and District NUJ Branch is taking up the issue of access for journalists to immigration detention centres. Branch member Bill MacKeith explains why this is important.

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Join us Dec 13th to talk media and migrants over mulled wine

mulled-wine-shutter-stockJoin us, Tuesday December 13th, for an evening of friendship, mulled wine and mince pies, where we will turn our attention to groups who feel increasingly excluded, vulnerable and friendless in today’s Britain. Continue reading

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South London colleagues warn of Newsquest’s kamikaze plans


How can 12 journalists produce 11 local papers and 8 websites? Last week, the journalists at Newsquest’s South London titles got a feel for how when, after a week on strike, they returned to work for a few days before walking out again for another week.

Speaking at a meeting called by the Oxford branch at The Punter last Thursday, one chapel rep described the process. “You just have to get the paper out: Do we have the age of this girl? No? Do we have a name for her? No? F*** it! That’ll do. Off it goes.” Continue reading

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Our first digitally converged summer social: will you be there?

If you play a role in Oxfordshire’s interlinked and multi-platformed media ecosystem then  you’re invited to our summer social. Don’t let us down.

When? Thursday July 7th, 7.00-9.00pm

Where? North Wall Arts Centre, South Parade, Summertown, Oxford, OX2 7JN

Who? News reporters, photographers, documentary makers, press officers, comms workers – staff and freelances, print, broadcast and online, working for small outfits or global giants, serving hyperlocal or international audiences…

Why? Because news and information know no boundaries, because we all care about ethics, quality and professionalism, and getting a fair return for what we do, because you never know where you might find an opening to change job… and because all of the above are a good excuse to party

The social is being hosted by the BBC Oxford NUJ chapel, complete with free buffet and first drink and a bar. Continue reading

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Confidence, Camaraderie and Contacts

Anne Hall - Jan 2016

Anne Hall

Eleven branch members signed up to the first NUJ professional training course to be organised right here in Oxford. Anne Hall (@AnneHall222) was one of them and reports on the experience.

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Making money from hyperlocal journalism: open meeting


Rich Coulter

Rich Coulter, founder and editor of the Filton Voice


We’re opening up the first hour of our October branch meeting for a discussion on making money from hyperlocal journalism, led by Rich Coulter, editor of the Filton Voice. 

 7.00pm, Thursday 15 October, Panel Room, Oxford Town Hall, St Aldates, Oxford. Everyone is welcome. Continue reading

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Covering stories from the migration frontline: an open meeting

Thursday Sept 10th, 7.00-8.15pm, St Aldates Tavern, opposite Oxford Town Hall

Discussion with videoclips led by Jason Parkinson 


Videojournalist Jason Parkinson spent 10 days in August recording events around Calais, one of Europe’s many migration frontlines, which he first visited in 2007.

He used his camera to document the realities of  daily life for the people trapped in this permanent transit camp on the Calais dunes, and to give a voice to people like Alpha, pictured below, to tell their stories – (you can see the full 5-min video here.

At our September meeting, Jason will show some of his footage, talk about his experiences and lead a discussion about covering the stories of migrants and migration.

This part of the meeting will start at 7.00pm and will be open to anyone interested in joining the discussion.

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From Palestine to Oxford we showed what great journalism can do

A Palestinian child watches an Israeli soldier as she waits with her mother at a checkpoint. This photo is part of an exhibition by Reuters photojournalist Abed Qusini (see below for details)

The Palestine Unlocked festival, which ran in Oxford throughout much of the month of June, showcased some famous names and faces, such as the Norwegian doctor Mads Gilbert, who gave nightly reports on the casualty situation during last year’s bombardment of Gaza, and Mustapha Barghouti, a leading Palestinian spokesperson and advocate for using peaceful means, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign, to end the military occupation.

But it was the story of a lesser known photojournalist from Nablus, Abed Qusini, as told by Katherine MacAlister through a front-page article in the Oxford Times Weekend, and in interview with BBC Oxford’s Kat Orman that arguably did most to get across the reality of daily life for Palestinians.

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