It’s now four years since I left my job on the staff at the Impartial Reporter, having been a journalist there for 40 years. And although I have no position at the paper now, I’m fortunate to be able to continue writing this column most weeks.
Even my limited maths can work out that it is now 44 years since I penned my first article in 1973 and I’ve lost count of the numerous pieces I’ve written.
I have no difficulty, however, in recalling the most important story I was involved in. That was in 2004 when the paper reported on efforts to find out the truth about the death of a little toddler, Lucy Crawford at the Erne Hospital four years earlier.
Considering that I reported on the Enniskillen bombing and many of our major Troubles incidents, the election of Bobby Sands, numerous tragedies on our roads and elsewhere and a range of other issues, it’s quite a statement to say this was the most important story.
It was also one of the most difficult for a number of reasons.
I was warned by a close friend at a very early stage that this could cost me my job, and throughout 2004 both myself on a personal level and the paper generally came under serious attack for continuing our efforts.
But by far the greatest difficulty was the knowledge that across Northern Ireland there were a number of families who were having their grief at the loss of a dear child played out in public. Yet such was the nature of public importance of this issue, we felt that we must continue. A gut feeling that we were doing the right thing didn’t make it any easier. 
The events of 2004 (and other years) regarding the deaths of children in hospitals came back into the news again this week, with the publication of a report by Mr. Justice O’Hara after a 14-year public inquiry. The nature of time moving on means that some people will not have heard the story and I don’t intend to go into detail now. But for the record, suffice to say the following.
In the year 2000, a little 17-month-old girl had a tummy bug and because she’d become dehydrated after vomiting, she was taken to the Erne and put on a drip. In the middle of the night she unexpectedly collapsed and was transferred to the Royal in Belfast, probably already brain dead, and the day after that she was formally pronounced dead.
Her shocked and distraught family asked what had happened, but were told by the consultant in charge of her case at the Erne that he didn’t know. The death wasn’t referred to the Coroner for an inquest.
That may well have been that; except that 14 months later another little girl, nine-year-old Raychel Ferguson died in remarkably similar circumstances in the Altnagelvin Hospital.
Providentially, someone noticed the similarities and eventually inquests were held. Four years after Lucy’s death, a Coroner found that the original death certificate was wrong (O’Hara’s report said it made little sense.) The real cause of death should have included hyponatraemia, a condition involving fluid management and sodium levels and four years after Lucy died an inquest meant more questions were raised about what happened.
But the consultant in charge of her case refused to give evidence at the inquest.
After 14 more years and a public inquiry costing an estimated £15 million, we now know much more about what went on with the deaths of five children, and Mr. O’Hara’s report is remarkable in its scathing indictment of the way doctors, health trust managers and lawyers treated the families.
A failure by doctors to be honest, failing to learn lessons, trusts attempting to mislead the Coroner, doctors and managers not being relied on to do the right thing. Some putting their own reputation before patients’ interests, and doctors and managers working against the principles behind inquests.
Mr. O’Hara referred to a cover-up, and his report is an exposure of secrecy, lies and deceit going to the very top of the health service.
We know so much more now.
Back in 2004, though, a system which was already deceiving families to protect itself was also using dubious tactics to ensure journalists wouldn’t get to the truth.
In early 2004, my two former Impartial colleagues Fearghal McKinney and Trevor Birney were covering the issue for UTV, and with their co-operation I began asking questions locally for articles here. By the end of March, I was very surprised to get a call from someone in the then Sperrin Lakeland Trust asking if I would be prepared to meet their chief executive, Hugh Mills.
I’d never met the man before and he’d never shown any interest in doing so. Yet publicity over Lucy’s case prompted his request; I remember very well when we met that the first thing he asked me was to speak off the record. 
Why? Whatever the reason, I refused, and we carried his interview the following week, an article in which I deliberately pointed the finger at the Trust for their behaviour and called for a public inquiry.
So began a controversial and difficult six months. By now, Trevor Birney was researching an investigative journalism programme about the Crawford and Ferguson cases in particular. I can remember many discussions with Trevor and his colleague, Ruth O’Reilly and eventually in November 2004, Trevor produced “When Hospitals Kill.”
I have no doubt that without the professionalism, tenacity and principle of Trevor, the inquiry would never have happened; and yet he faced deceit and intimidation from the authorities. At a function, a Department of Health press officer warned him that they would “get him in the long grass.”
Locally here in Fermanagh, it was no different. One might think now that it would be the Trust under fire. Instead it was me as the messenger.
Negative reaction came quickly. A consultant at the Erne, not connected with the case, wrote a letter for publication in the paper. Disingenuously, he insisted that his name should not go on the letter, which I respected even though he attacked the Coroner, and suggested that the “media was primed for the inquest” which was a “set up.”
Our reporting was an “unholy alliance between UTV and the Impartial Reporter” and he had a clear message to journalists. “Back off”, quote unquote.
This doctor wrote: “If Mr. McDaniel is unfortunate enough to have an accident in his car, he is unlikely to jump out and admit liability all around.”
Er, actually, if I was in the wrong I hope I would, but I remember thinking what does this say about the culture of denial of mistakes in the medical world?
The letters continued. A Councillor, who I admired and still do, wrote a garbled letter full of inaccuracies attacking our reporting and calling for me to consider my position. He wrote publicly that the story was being done to sell more papers. It didn’t, by the way.
A hospital campaigner wrote accusing me of “dangerously misleading” reporting that could lead to further tragedies and which was causing distress to staff with a personal attack.
A whispering campaign against me began, with two themes. Firstly, that we were putting the case for the new hospital to be built in Enniskillen in danger. I think of that when I drive past the wonderful new SWAH several times a week. 
And secondly, that I was attacking our health service staff. I was often criticised by staff when out socially, and indeed it was a difficult experience to attend medical appointments for me and my family. So this one actually worked for a while, and it took me some time to convince people that actually there is no greater fan of our wonderful NHS staff than me. But why should I join in the conspiracy of the protection of the rotten ones, mostly at the top?
Phone calls from leading figures came to the newspaper owner, Joanna McVey who was wonderfully supportive.
But I felt I had little choice to continue.  Sometimes, I wondered if the public really wanted the truth if it proved unpalatable. Where has the outcry been at the O’Hara report, where have our politicians been, where has been the realisation within the medical profession and management that families such not be treated in such a disgraceful way?
I have obviously been in very reflective mood this week; as I wonder why it took such an effort by journalists and a very lengthy and expensive public inquiry to highlight what went on within the health service. 
At some levels there have been admissions that there was something seriously wrong; but some of the statements suggest to me that at least some in the higher echelons of health service management haven’t shown a determination to root this out. I haven’t yet heard a single suggestion that people will be held to account for their badness; indeed it still seems that those in authority still want to regulate themselves.
There can be no going back. Hopefully Mr. O’Hara’s recommendations will help ensure that, and rest assured there are still many people who will hunt out the truth in the future.