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Being held to account means answering questions in person

Chris Jackson | 16:45 UK time, Monday, 5 March 2012

Southern Cross sign

On Monday's programme (Monday, 5 March 2010, 19:30 GMT, BBC One) we are catching up with some of our recent stories to let you know what happened next.

Among them Southern Cross. We are proud of the fact we were exposing shortcomings at the care home provider long before it collapsed.

However because of a pending trial we couldn't tell you about the awful abuse of elderly residents at the company's St Michael's View home in South Shields. The home is now under new management.

The case followed a police investigation into the home back in 2010. The judge made stinging criticisms of the failures within Southern Cross, but the case also cast light on how "the system" didn't spot them.

We approached, South Tyneside Council's social services department, the local NHS Trust, the Care Quality Commission (the new body that absorbed the original inspection body at the time of the incidents) and a former Southern Cross regional manager - all declined to be interviewed about this specific case.

They did issue statements, but on a major story of such public interest it is surprising that not one of them was willing to answer questions in person. An independent review is being carried out so we await the outcome with interest.

With the care and dignity of the elderly in care such a hot topic I leave it to you to decide whether this anonymised response is acceptable in the circumstances.

On a wider view; I've been a journalist for more than 25 years and have seen huge changes in how services for the public good are run.

As a thrusting trainee reporter I was used to ringing the local water or electricity board, British Rail, health authority or council to set up an interview. Even though I was a young trainee, those who took my call responded as dutiful public servants with an innate sense of obligation that they should be held accountable.

Back then no one really knew what a spin doctor was, nor was there even a hint that public information was there to be spun.

Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson notoriously turned it into an art form - some say the dark arts. You can't turn the clock back, don rose tinted glasses and plead for a return to the "good old days". I certainly wouldn't want to.

If you go back far enough, journalists were to blame for a lack of public accountability. The profession was deferential to those in authority in the most cringeworthy manner.

Apocryphal or not it brings to mind an interviewer timidly asking "would the minister care to share his thoughts with a grateful nation" or some such nonsense rather than asking anything challenging with a view to unearthing the truth.

None of us are naïve any more. Journalists and press officers alike understand the power and influence of today's media. Our job is to probe, I'll let you decide what the others' role is but a clue is to be found in my contacts book. Some people who used to be known as press officers now bear the title "reputation manager".

'to call to account'.
Concise Oxford Dictionary definition: "require an explanation from (a person)".

Noticeable too is an apparent trend for public bodies to resist putting people up for interview to respond in person to criticism or complaint.

A statement, no matter how detailed, does not allow for such carefully worded responses to be further probed and tested face-to-face. If someone doesn't answer the question you can put it to them again, and the public can judge the integrity of the response.

Ironically some of the privatised services, such as water, electricity and trains seem in my personal experience to be quicker and more eager to put their Chief Exec or expert up for questioning when things go awry.

Perhaps the way to judge the state of public accountability these days is to spot how many times a real person is put before the cameras and microphones when it's good news and how many times when it's bad.

Contact details:, twitter: @insideoutcj, facebook


  • Comment number 1.

    Most Doctors & Nurses & other supporting staff are dedicated & most of them are run off there feet. There are too many patients & not enough staff to look after them. sometimes buzzers removed from side of bed & place on wall where patient can't reach. I could go on & on. I have too many complaints to list hear. Lots of patients are neglected in South Tyneside hospital. I also am very upset leaving my husband & sister in hospital to fend for themselves. I still have sleepless nights. I need to find legal help on a miss diagnoses. I have obtained printed copies of all my late husbands medical notes from his GP & South Tyneside Hospital.
    From a very unhappy widow in South Shields.


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