“It started, I suppose, with NHS England trying to kill me.”
Thus begins Health Service Journal editor Alastair McLellan’s telling of his publication’s extraordinary journey through the coronavirus pandemic.
From being a niche B2B website for health service leaders with a readership of around 10,000 per week, it has at times had more than 250,000 readers online at one moment.
It has become compulsive reading for anyone seriously interested in how the UK has been fighting coronavirus.
McLellan spoke to Press Gazette via Zoom (see video below) from his home and said he does not plan to go back to the newsroom any time soon.
“I have no intention of going back into the office until they start producing a vaccine. I will obviously on the odd occasion. But one thing the team have proven is we can do our jobs working from home almost just as well.
“What has been challenging is not having face-to-face meetings with contacts and going to conferences – but it hasn’t been not being in the office.”
It was in early March when, as he flippantly puts it, NHS England tried to kill him.
“I was talking to one of the senior figures in NHS England and I said what about this Covid stuff – is it that serious? He said, you go off on holiday to Italy and we’ll talk about it when you come back.”
We now know that at that stage the disease was widely transmitted throughout Italy
By the middle of March, McLellan says, it became obvious how serious the crisis was: “What I think we did do well is realise how fast we needed to move.”
At that time the HSJ made two bold decisions. Firstly, the entire editorial and research team of 30 were devoted to covering the pandemic. And secondly, the title dropped its paywall.
This latter decision was not to be taken lightly given that HSJ has doubled its subscription revenue over the last decade and this now accounts for half of its income. The other half, events, has been torpedoed by the pandemic.
McLellan says: “I knew that the coverage we do would be at least as good as you can get anywhere else because I have the scale of people to throw at it and because those people are very good. I thought this is a global emergency so we are just going to drop the paywall completely.”
How did owners Wilmington plc take to that?
“Ask for forgiveness and not permission, the watchwords for any good editor. Of course the move had the support of my lords and masters, the fact I was able to show them massive support within our sector for the move helped me do that. I’d like to pay tribute to our owners who saw the sense in what we did and backed us.”
After keeping access open during April and May, HSJ began putting more content behind a registration barrier – which has served as a useful lead-gathering tool for subscription sales. The plan is now to move back to a fully paywalled model.
He says: “I didn’t think we had any choice to do it because I think we would have been so criticised if we hadn’t done it.”
Health Service Journal’s role in covering the pandemic was praised in a recent speech by former Channel 4 head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne for Oxford University. It has also won plaudits from industry figures including Today presenteer Nick Robinson and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson.
Asked what he is most proud of, McLellan says: “I think the most important stuff we’ve done is we’ve just covered it in so much detail, day in, day out.
“Almost anything that was significant you read about it in HSJ first – whether it be testing concerns, excess deaths, PPE – you name it, we covered it first.
“The best thing for me out of this whole thing is how some really great journalists whose work is known in the NHS at a senior level – lots and lots of people have seen it. They’ve had proper recognition for the quality of their journalism.
“In terms of specific stories, we have done a lot on the fact the government is playing fast and loose with statistics. It was our coverage that led to the UK Statistics Authority writing to Matt Hancock telling him to clean up his act.
“They’ve just announced they are going to end the shielding programme for vulnerable people. We revealed that a week ago to HSJ readers. There are many more examples.”
HSJ was the first specialist title to be asked, by Lobby journalists, to join the panel asking questions on the daily NHS media briefing.
Asked what he makes of coverage of the pandemic by the mainstream media, he says: “I would say this period has been a good one for British journalism. We have all been given a good chunky subject and I think British journalism has risen to the challenge. People have educated themselves about pandemics and healthcare systems and not done sensationalist work.
“I think there was a little too much swallowing of the line that the government was following the ‘science’. There isn’t such a thing as the ‘science’ people disagree with each other all the time and scientists get things wrong. They clearly got things wrong on the advice they gave to government early on.”
McLellan’s response to the news that those daily briefings have stopped is to the point: “Hurrah… They’ve outlived their usefulness by some way.”
Government media handling nothing like as controlling as New Labour years
What does he think in general about the government’s media response and the complaint from journalists that there has been a lack of transparency?
“Show me a situation where journalists think the government has ever been as transparent as it should be. The government got themselves into a situation where they needn’t have to, by setting the 100,000 tests target for example, and then realising they couldn’t meet the target and then playing fast and loose with the figures.
“I think this government has been pretty transparent about the way it has gone about tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve written loads of negative and potentially damaging stories and I’ve not had anyone ring me up and bend my ear over it. We’ve got remember this is a government which designated journalists as key workers – we could send our kids to school.
“This was nothing like the New Labour years.”
The economic fallout of the pandemic has already led to hundreds of job losses in the journalism industry and many titles closing altogether. How does the future of journalism look for HSJ?
As far as healthcare goes, he says: “There’s going be a lot of money around and there’s going to be change. And that’s a good environment for information intelligence providers to operate in…
“At HSJ we’ve always put journalism at the heart of what we do. Our view is investigative journalism is the best way to understand a subject and build context. This allows us to produce big breaking stories and in-depth analytical pieces which we sell for four-figure sums in terms of subscriptions and that has been the secret of HSJ’s success.
“For some sectors we are about to go through a boom. The government is not going to cut spending and it is very difficult for it to raise taxes.
“There will be winners and losers, but in certain sectors there’s a real opportunity for people to provide good quality information and intelligence. Done the right way good quality journalism can be absolutely at the heart of that.”