The story that former Express & Star reporter Shaun Lintern admits has changed his life – and those of the families involved – began with a simple ring-in.
In 2007 Lintern was a “bog-standard” reporter based in the Express & Star’s Staffordshire office – six years on he has been praised for his pivotal role in exposing the neglect that took place Stafford Hospital.
When Julie Bailey, who would later lead the campaign for a public inquiry into Mid-Staffordshire Health Trust and found the Cure the NHS group, first phoned the paper she spoke with a reporter who appeared to show little interest in her story.
Lintern, 29, tells Press Gazette: “I needed a story and heard that she had this issue, so I rang her back and basically asked if we could start again, and if I could help her at all. It all began from there, really.”
After that first story Bailey, whose mother was admitted to Stafford Hospital for a routine hernia operation but died amid “appalling” conditions on the ward, appealed for others to come forward if they had suffered similar experiences.
“What began as a slow trickle soon became a tidal wave of local people coming forward with their own absolutely horrifying stories,” says Lintern. “We began to realise, as more and more people came forward and public meetings began to attract 20-30 families, that there was something a lot bigger at that hospital going on.”
It culminated in an investigation by the Express & Star that was soon followed by an ultimately successful campaign for a public inquiry.
And when that inquiry finally began in November 2010 Lintern was in the fortunate position – for a local newspaper reporter at least – to be able to sit through almost every hearing over 139 days.
In all he wrote around 130,000 words on the inquiry for the paper. And he was also the only journalist asked to give evidence, an experience he describes as “very stressful”.
But the culmination of the story came last week with publication of the Francis report into the scandal. Among the 290 recommendations was one that healthcare regulators begin monitoring local newspapers – a practice that could potentially help avoid a repeat of the scandal.
“The story of Mid-Staffs is that there were plenty of warning signs – they were just missed by the system. And when they were missed, hundreds of people died unnecessarily,” says Lintern.
“I’m really pleased to see he’s made a recommendation that NHS organisations should monitor local media reporting – that’s a vote of confidence in local newspaper reporting on hospital issues.”
Lintern adds: “I came into this industry to make a difference and one of the ways to do that is to stand up for people who have no voice, and some of these families felt that they were getting nowhere with the hospital and I was able to help them. That really was my motivation.
“I have to say I had no idea where this story was going to take me but I just followed it through. I wasn’t the only reporter on the paper who reported on the hospital, but as other reporters moved on and left and changed jobs I remained and kept hold of the story and never let it go.”
After he spent more and more time covering the story, he was eventually made health correspondent for the paper. Lintern, who recently won an award from the Medical Journalists Association for his body of work on Mid-Staffordshire, left the paper in early 2012 and is now living in London and working as a specialist health journalist for Health Service Journal.
“The story has changed my life, but it’s fair to say it’s also had a profound emotional impact on me as well,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t emotional on Wednesday when we got the report. It’s been a long journey.”
Lintern also sees the story as “testament to the strength of good local journalism”, adding: “I don’t mean that egotistically. I just mean that if my newspaper didn’t exist at that point, and those families had nowhere else to get their voice heard, would it have gone as far as it did?
“I can’t answer that question but I believe we made a difference for them”. But he also believes the Express – along with other regional papers – would no longer be able free up time for reporters to attend an inquest every day after several waves of job cuts. “I doubt they could that now you know,” he says. “They’ve made cuts since I left; I doubt they could afford a reporter to sit there all day every day now. I was very lucky to be able to do that at the time.
“It shows the value of being able to do that though because the Express & Star got amazing front page stories from being at the inquiry every day and it filled the paper with interesting detailed news and made sure the paper was at the front of the story.
“There’s a question there: If we’re not going to resource these kinds of inquiries, and we’re not going to resource these kinds of stories in future, what kind of news coverage are we giving our readers? It’s a question for the newspaper owners, not me, but it’s relevant I think.”
He adds: “I’d just like to say that I’m very proud to have been involved in this story and even more proud that the families involved who suffered terribly let me in and that I’ve kept that link with them going for five years.
“I would like to think I’ve achieved something with this story alongside them. It’s fair to say I won’t ever forget being involved in this story.” Over the course of the past six years Lintern has grown close to the families involved in the story and was with them the night before the report was published.
He says: “I obviously always hold myself to a high standard of journalism in terms of factually reporting what we know and can prove, but I defy anyone to speak to some of these families and not be emotionally affected by it, because their stories are so appalling.”