As much as we’d like to think all our best work stems from brilliant contacts, a hard-earned reputation and a public clamouring at the door to push exclusives under our noses, it’s funny how often it’s actually simple good fortune that sets a story rolling.
In my case, it was a group of would-be whistleblowers who just happened to see a story I’d written on a consultant who’d blown the whistle on malpractice in the NHS on the very day they courageously decided to make a ‘public interest disclosure’to the press.
Longer than 18 months after I received a tentative, anonymous phone call that same night, six former children’s home workers were to win a £1m legal settlement after being sacked for having the guts to tell the truth.
It was a long, hard journey for the staff, all of whom suffered financial hardship and great emotional strain after being dismissed in February last year – only weeks after revelations about the shocking standard of care for some of society’s most vulnerable children had appeared in the Yorkshire Post.
The investigation initially involved several weeks of detailed research before the first raft of stories made the paper – none of which would ever have appeared without the sheer professionalism of Clive Womersley, Grant Morley, Karen Allcock, Vincent Felix, Doug Lafferty and Keith Bayliss, who had kept every scrap of evidence in a tower of precisely filed, official records.
The whistleblowers had tried every way possible to get someone in authority to take up their concerns but had eventually come to the conclusion that going to the press was the only way someone would listen.
As with all reporting and particularly investigative work, trust is a key ingredient. In this case, it was doubly underlined by the understandable wariness of dedicated staff who would be helping to reveal disturbing information involving children who had been badly let down by managers at Wakefield Council.
One of the stories involved a 16-year-old girl whose parents had both killed themselves through drug overdoses being thrown out of a home without the required post-care planning. She had quickly ended up living with a 47-year-old drug dealer. Another case involved a 12-year-old allowed to engage in a sexual relationship. Protecting identity was crucial.
After the workers were sacked, the council attempted to damage the credibility of both the whistleblowers and the accuracy of the Yorkshire Post reporting. At the heart of the council’s defence was a claim that the NSPCC had investigated and found no serious problems.
Six months on, a Freedom of Information request to the national children’s rights director, who launched his own investigation, revealed that Wakefield Council had ‘perversely’tried to block the NSPCC from fully investigating the claims.
The authority had no defence left but still insisted on spending tens of thousands on legal bills right up to the eve of an employment tribunal before caving in. The eventual victory was nothing more than the six people at the heart of the story deserved.