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  1. Media Law
September 28, 2016updated 29 Sep 2016 5:58pm

Journalists protest changes which will make nurse misconduct hearings ‘almost impossible to cover’

By Freddy Mayhew

Journalists have condemned a decision by the Nursing and Midwifery Council to stop releasing details of allegations ahead of tribunal hearings, calling the move an “outrage”.

Until Monday 26 September, the UK regulator for nurses and midwives published draft charges against individuals on its website, which gave journalists some insight into whether a case might be newsworthy.

But now the NMC, which has the power to suspend and strike off registrants, is no longer releasing this detail, instead referring to allegations more broadly as “misconduct”.

Press Gazette has been told the decision may be a result of the NMC’s embarrassment at a recent story by news agency Deadline about Ebola nurse Pauline Cafferkey that was based on incorrect draft charges published by the body but later dropped.

The NMC, however, has said its decision was based on balancing privacy rights against press access and after new advice from the Information Commissioner’s Office.

As a result of the decision, Deadline has pulled its coverage of NMC hearings in Scotland leading to fears they will go widely unreported.

The Scottish Newspaper Society has also called the decision into question along with Central News agency in London.

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Scottish Newspaper Society director John McLellan said: “This is going backwards, not forwards and to me seems counter to the principles of open justice.”

He added: “In these times where nobody has got the resources to hang around outside tribunal offices on the off chance that something interesting might come up, it just makes life much more difficult. Most news organisations rely on agencies to monitor these things to have an idea what’s going on.

“There’s now the very real possibility that the proceedings will go unreported.”

Peter Laing, managing editor at Deadline, said: “We had a system that seemed to work very well, certainly in terms of bringing the failings of the nursing profession to the public’s attention.

“They [the NMC] deal with 900 cases a year, a significant number of which are in Scotland. We can’t go to every one of these cases. We have to field them in terms of public interest.

“Most of them are about what people consider relatively minor things. We used to look at these charges to work out if something is going to be a really serious case if proven.”

He added that as a “quasi judicial process”, hearings can sometimes take hours to get started and that a lot of the time the media aren’t interested in cases even when they are reported.

“It’s a big commitment of time and effort on our part to cover these cases anyway,” he said.

“We can’t just go along in the hopes that something interesting might happen in front of our eyes that morning.

“We don’t have any option other than to stop going along to the NMC, which is obviously a note of regret.”

Central News director Guy Toyn has sent a letter to NMC chief executive Jackie Smith claiming the decision “makes a mockery of the council’s stated aim of transparency”.

The letter is signed by almost a dozen journalists, including Ian Cobain at The Guardian, BBC home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw, Fiona Hamilton at The Times and Teilo Colley, wire editor at Press Association.

It reads: “This makes hearings almost impossible to cover as there is little point in sending a reporter to a hearing if he or she has no idea what it is about…

“We invite you to urgently reconsider this matter. Ultimately it is damaging to the NMC, the profession and the public.”

Toyn added: “They have made it virtually impossible to sensibly cover these hearings both in London and Scotland. Frankly it’s an absolute outrage.”

The NMC has said it will provide reports of the outcome of hearings, however Laing claimed these would be without witness testimony.

An NMC spokesperson said: “As an organisation committed to continuous improvement we are constantly reviewing our processes.

“Following feedback from our stakeholders and advice from the Information Commissioner we have taken the decision to no longer publish detailed draft charges ahead of the hearing.

“These changes will help to ensure fairness to all parties as charges at pre-hearing stage may be subject to change.

“We will still publish details of each hearing, including the headline charge, a week ahead of the hearing taking place and we will provide a copy of the full charges once they have been confirmed on the day.”

McLellan and Laing both expressed concern that other bodies might take the NMC’s example and start withholding information online.

Said McLellan: “My fear is that all kinds of hearings get swept up into the vortex of no details being published unless you go to the hearing yourself.”

Laing said: “Most professional regulators are caught between the demands of the press and the public and I think the people they regulate are concerned that too much gets out there.

“The public interest is being damaged by this.”

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