Jill Finney: ‘The media made me a national scapegoat – and it was hell’

In June 2013, the former deputy chief executive of the Care Quality Commission (CQC) was accused on newspaper front pages of being at the centre of a cover-up

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Indy Politics

“Public enemy No 1” is the sort of headline you might run for a major fraudster or a serial rapist – not a health regulator.

On 12 March 2012, I was in a regular meeting looking at an internal report [into the CQC’s handling of the investigation into baby deaths as Furness] with my colleagues. We talked and scribbled down notes. The idea of asking my colleagues what they had written, lest it turn out to be the sole piece of evidence used against me in an independent report months later, did not occur to me. Nor did it cross my mind that such a note could be distorted in such a way as to make the media camp outside my house for a week, hunt down my children and ruin my career.

I and others have always vehemently denied the allegation that there was an attempt to cover up an internal report into the CQC’s handling of the investigation. Rightly, the media have long demanded the truth as to why there were so many maternity deaths in Morecambe Bay – a very fair challenge, and one I hope will be settled by the publication of the Kirkup investigation later this year.

So when CQC commissioned an independent report into its own regulatory activity, the temptation for journalists to blur the two issues – the deaths at Morecambe, and the conduct of the CQC – was huge.

For most journalists today complexity and context are anathema. If their own personal reputations were at stake, they might be more circumspect: as it was, the vast majority appeared not to have even read the report before writing about it. What hope did the public have of discerning the truth?

 

Because of the blurring of these two issues, I was national headline material for 48 hours – and, by default, the focus of political opportunism. Overnight, the Secretary of State, regional MPs and even the Prime Minister became experts on an internal report that they had clearly neither read nor been properly briefed on. There was a call for a criminal investigation – a call the Cumbria police force almost immediately judged irrelevant, of course. The nation loves a scapegoat – and they love it even more if that scapegoat is in public service, senior and female.

Do we seriously believe this is a sustainable, reliable means of attracting the best people to jobs in the public sector? Headteachers, hospital executives, social care workers, nurses all working under the looming spectre of scalping at the hands of politicians and the press?

Reading acres of negative coverage about yourself is an out-of-body experience: you do not recognise yourself in the words you see written. There are no redeeming features, no subtleties and most pertinently no facts. Even the simplest acts are ridiculed by journalists who – on the whole – seem hell-bent on demonising you. In my case, only those at Channel Four News and BBC Radio 4’s Today programme stopped to consider whether the story added up.

The media storm broke on 19 June 2013. At that point, I had not even received the independent report from the CQC. Yet the horse had long bolted, and for a week my mobile did not stop ringing with anonymous calls. Mercifully, following the Today programme’s hunch that something was not right, Jim Naughtie gave me 10 minutes to put my case – and in the ensuing days other media started to give my side of the story.

Yet this didn’t erase Google’s record of my “crimes” – nor, more importantly, did it compensate for the ignominy I’d suffered when the bonfire that was my career of 34 years finally died down.

There was but one recourse, said my friends and family: sue the CQC for libel and clear my name. They are easy words to say but doing it is another matter entirely. For a start, I didn’t realise how many law firms the Department of Health seems to need. Finding a firm not conflicted out by DoH interests was no mean task; then the lawyers had to establish certain facts around the case before they could offer a no-win, no-fee deal. My enduring thanks go to Pinsent Masons and 5RB Chambers for undertaking the case. We then had to find an insurer to offset my legal costs in the event of my losing, a type of insurance that in defamation is very hard to find.

At long last, we secured it. I issued proceedings in the High Court, and the manila folder labelled Finney vs CQC was born. Prior to this, my only brush with the law was three points for speeding. How on earth did I end up here? As the lawyers took the reins, there followed an endless exchange of documents in which both sides transmitted, neither side received and timescales seemed timeless. The only one with a sense of urgency was me.

During these 18 months, my life was on pause: the stain on my reputation meant even voluntary work was denied me. I moved from a highly challenging executive role to nothing overnight.

My family had to share in my shame and distress at being so publicly humiliated. Mercifully after 15 months I reached an out-of-court settlement comprising damages, my legal costs and an apology from the CQC.

Yet even then, while Channel 4 took this outcome seriously, the rest of the press dismissed it as not newsworthy and it was only by working with the Independent Press Standards Organisation was I able to get the apology printed under the most incriminating coverage on the web.

Is there a moral to my story as “Public enemy No 1”? There were several possible lessons. The first is for companies to ensure allegations against their employees are watertight before they toss their names to the wolves. Due legal processes exist for a reason, and are all the more important in an age of social media and a 24-hour rolling news cycle.

For journalists caught in the grip of these forces, meanwhile, I’d beg you to do your own research and consider the context of the story. If it’s complex don’t simplify it for the sake of cheap headlines; the personal cost to the individual is irrevocable.

I’d ask you to remember that sinister, conspiratorial behaviour is rare among human beings. Most of us, particularly those in the public sector, wish to do a good job; and when we don’t, it’s most likely to be human failings.

As for politicians, when you join the lynch mob without stopping to ask a few questions, you are no better than a cheap headline. We expect more of you.

The third lesson concerns us the public: I have learnt to think critically when I  see someone vilified in the national media, to consider if I am in possession of both sides of the story and ask if the story really make sense. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the truth is rarely pure, never simple and easily exploited. 

Finally, next time you find yourself in one of those regular meetings look out for everyone’s  scribbles: you never know how they might be interpreted.

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