A report into the deaths of up to 650 patients at a Portsmouth hospital has singled out coverage by a local daily newspaper in uncovering the scandal.
The News first covered the story on 3 April 2001 when its crime reporter, Jonathan Carter, reported on a police investigation into the death of 91-year-old Gladys Richards at Gosport War Memorial Hospital.
An independent inquiry, the Gosport Independent Panel, was set up to investigate the south coast hospital in 2014 and only yesterday released its report.
It said: “The documents show the prominent part played by the Portsmouth News in pursuing concerns about Gosport War Memorial Hospital and the related police investigations as well as the accuracy of its early reporting.”
The report found that over 450 people died at the hospital between 1989 and 2000 after being wrongly prescribed high doses of powerful opioid painkillers.
Due to missing hospital records a further 200 patients may have also suffered a similar fate, the panel said.
It found retired GP Jane Barton, 69, was “responsible for the practice of prescribing which prevailed on the wards” over the 12 years she was clinical assistant at the hospital.
The News’s initial report into the affair in 2001 included the line: “One source told the News the deaths of as many as 600 elderly people could be re-examined.
“It is thought the use of the pain killing drug diamorphine might form part of any future inquiry.”
The paper continued to cover the situation at Gosport Hospital as people came forward to the police with complaints about the treatment of their family members.
Editor of the News, Mark Waldron, told Press Gazette: “Among many things we are the voice for the people and I hope we showed this throughout this tortuous process.
“The families at the centre of this injustice have campaigned long and hard for answers and it was only right that we did what we could to support them.
“Once we ran our first reports in 2001 we had to see it through to the end.”
He added: “We are not there yet – as we said on the front page today (pictured top) now we need justice. Wrongdoing on this scale cannot go unpunished.”
Commenting on the challenges the paper had overcome Waldron said: “To start with, and total credit here to my predecessor Mike Gilson and the then crime reporter Jonathan Carter, we were reporting on an issue that nobody wanted to believe.
“As the families have found in the last 20 years, we were repeatedly told there was little to this story.”
He added: “The second challenge was ensuring the focus remained on what the families were saying over a very long period of time as a series of investigations still failed to provide them with the answers they deserved.
“Finally, since the establishment of the Gosport Independent Panel in 2014 it’s been one of patience, waiting for this week’s report.”
The News, owned by Johnston Press, was also praised in the report for encouraging former staff at the hospital to come forward.
Pauline Spilka, nursing auxiliary, was quoted in the panel’s report as saying nine days after the article was published: “This story has brought back some disturbing memories of incidents that occurred whilst employed at the hospital that I felt unable to highlight at the time.
“Having read this story I have decided that I am morally obliged to bring them up now.”
The report found that further coverage in the newspaper about the hospital in 2009, when inquests began, created a “growing demand” for an independent inquiry.
The News’ current crime and court reporter, Ben Fishwick told Press Gazette: “Having spoken with the families yesterday, together with our health reporter Ellie Pilmoor, it was humbling to see the strength of their tenacity rewarded with vindication for their long-fought campaign for answers.
“Many of them felt enormous relief to know what they had been saying for years was right and that they had finally been listened to, not just brushed off as troublemakers.
“The panel’s findings were clearly not the end for the families and we at The News will be continuing to cover their demands for justice.”
Bishop James Jones, who chaired the independent panel, also praised the role of The News.
He said: “Your advocacy of the families is a great example of what local media means, and I’ve been a great supporter of local media.
“Local newspapers and TV stations and radio are absolutely vital for precisely this reason because no-one in national media and national TV was [reporting on it].
“The paper acted as their channel and champion and that’s very commendable.”