The Guardian's Amelia Gentleman says Windrush scandal stories show journalism 'can have an impact' despite its cynics

Guardian reporter Amelia Gentleman has said she feels “totally overwhelmed” by the outcome of her reporting on the Windrush scandal.

In a series of stories this year, Gentleman revealed how the Government’s tough stance on immigration had resulted in migrants who were invited to post-war Britain from Commonwealth countries facing deportation and even denied treatment under the NHS.

The Guardian’s coverage has led to a public apology from Prime Minister Theresa May and the resignation of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd – a direct result of pressure from the paper over the scandal.

Gentleman spent six months working on the story before it made any political impact. In that time she spoke to around 15 people from the Windrush generation – named after the boat on which they travelled to British shores.

In one case, exposed by Gentleman, a man who had lived in Britain for 44 years, after following his mother to London from the Caribbean, was denied treatment for prostate cancer on the grounds that he had no passport.

Sylvester Marshall (who was given the pseudonym Albert Thompson by the paper at the time of the article) had been told he must pay £54,000 to access radiotherapy treatment. His story prompted outrage and a pledge from Theresa May that he would “be receiving the treatment he needs”.

All those caught up in the scandal have now been offered British citizenship.

Gentleman has written more than 40 stories on the Windrush scandal so far this year. She told Press Gazette: “I’ve never written anything that’s had an impact on this scale, ever.

“I’m totally overwhelmed, I can’t process it. It’s been really head spinning.”

But she said it had also been “positive”, adding: “I don’t want to sound self-righteous but it does really show that, although people are quite cynical about journalists and journalism, it can have an impact.”

Gentleman said working on the story was “really, really frustrating” until her report on 15 April that Downing Street had turned down a request from representatives of 12 Caribbean countries for a meeting to discuss the scandal quickly led to apologies from the UK Government.

However she had mixed feelings about Rudd’s eventual resignation as Home Secretary on 29 April, the same day a letter showing her referencing immigrant deportation targets, which she had told MPs did not exist, was published in the Guardian after parallel work by its investigative team.

Gentleman said: “I slightly wonder whether the real responsibility goes back a bit further than her. These were all policies that were implemented not by her, so I’m not really sure what I feel about her resignation.

“I only really know what a lot of the people I interviewed felt, which was that they were happy that this reflected that the issue was being taken really seriously, but they looked back to hostile environment policies that had been implemented earlier. I guess they were a bit puzzled.”

Gentleman said that in her experience it is rare for stories to have such an big impact on the public.

“I spent years writing, for example, about something quite similar which was about disability benefit reform.

“From 2012, for really quite a long time, I did a lot of similar interviews with people who had been denied disability benefits because of a Government change and I spent a long time asking for people to have their pictures taken to tell their stories and really with absolutely no impact at all,” she said.

“In that case, maybe at the margins there was a slight shifting of one aspect of the way the law was implemented, but broadly nothing changed. But with this [Windrush] it’s amazing.”

Gentleman said the story showed the importance of investigative journalism and paying to support newspapers that carried it out.

“The point about journalism, if it’s working well, is you’re going out of the office, talking to people, finding things out, asking questions,” she said.

“I’m really lucky because I work for an organisation that, although our finances are not great, resources are put into the newsroom to give you time not to just be sitting at your desk and massively under pressure, but to have a bit of time to go to Wolverhampton on a whim.”

The spark for the Windrush story came three years ago when Gentleman met a refugee and migrant charity in Wolverhampton after a planned meeting with the local MP was cancelled.

The charity contacted her out of the blue in October last year worried about one of their clients, a grandmother who had been in the UK for 50 years and had just been taken to a detention centre because she was classified as an illegal immigrant.

Although the situation was soon resolved, Gentleman decided to meet the woman in Wolverhampton and tell her story. It was a precursor to the work she was later to do.

After that piece was published in November last year, Gentleman received a call from someone who said their father had been in a very similar situation and had been detained for five weeks.

“He said – and this is what really made me realise it was a much wider problem – that he knew about three people from school who were in the same situation,” Gentleman said.

“The idea that somebody who had been here for 50 years and had worked, paid taxes and had been sent to detention for five weeks and nobody really minded that much – his local MP was sort of trying to help him but hadn’t really been able to – but it just wasn’t something that anybody was really cross about.”

She then began calling MPs and immigration charities to make contact with those affected and discovered the most difficult part of her job was asking them to go on the record and have their photos taken.

“It was not that surprising, I suppose, that the charities were quite protective about the people that they did know in that situation and the MPs’ offices were also.

“If you’ve got an immigration problem, the last thing you want to do is have your picture in the paper saying look at me I’m an illegal immigrant.”

She managed to get six people – including the man who originally called her and his three school friends – to speak for a piece on 21 February this year, headlined “I’ve been here for 50 years”: the scandal of the former Commonwealth citizens threatened with deportation.

It helped that she had already received indications from the Home Office that it was willing to respond to the Windrush cases highlighted in the media.

“Normally if you ask somebody to be interviewed you kind of say: ‘I don’t at all know whether this is going to be helpful to your case but it will raise an issue’,” she said.

“Whereas in this case I was almost able to say: ‘I think it might be helpful, because the Home Office seems to be willing to take action.’”

Gentleman was soon overwhelmed by the number of people coming forward to tell similar stories.

Cancer patient Marshall’s story made such an impact on Guardian readers that they even offered to pay his medical bill.

Gentleman said: “People are just so kind and that’s what’s been so amazing – that well before the Government realised that this was a problem, Guardian readers realised it was a problem.”

She said she will continue following the Windrush scandal, adding: “My inbox is absolutely overflowing with stories. I don’t think I’ll be looking at anything else for months.”

Picture: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

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