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Gosport Independent Panel

Chapter 9: The local and national media



The Panel has seen no documents suggesting that the concerns expressed by the nurses at Gosport War Memorial Hospital (‘the hospital’) in 1991 were drawn to the attention of either the local or national media at the time. 


The documents available to the Panel show that the first time the local or national media covered the relevant allegations was in April 2001, over two and a half years after Gillian Mackenzie contacted Hampshire Constabulary, thereby bringing about the police investigation.


In April 2001, it was the local newspaper in Portsmouth, The News, which began to publicise the ongoing police investigation. For ease of reference, the newspaper is referred to in this Report as the Portsmouth News.


The press reports described in this chapter are available on the Panel website.

Initial media coverage: 2001


The documents show that, on 22 March 2001, Detective Superintendent (Det Supt) Steve Watts included the following statement in a note headed “Various media issues re OP ROCHESTER & THORNHILL: “As you are aware this afternoon I was contacted by Jonathan CARTER of the News asking for a meeting to discuss some information that he had regarding our investigation of a death at Gosport Memorial Hospital” (HCO003619, p1). 


It appears that Det Supt Watts met Mr Carter on the same day. Det Supt Watts sent his note to Detective Chief Inspector (Det Ch Insp) Raymond Burt, then the officer in charge of the police investigation, and to a Hampshire Constabulary media services officer. He also copied the note to Detective Inspector (Det Insp) John Ashworth, Detective Chief Superintendent (Det Ch Supt) Keith Akerman, Chief Superintendent (Ch Supt) David Basson, Head of the Professional Standards Department, and a detective sergeant. The note said: 

“ROCHESTER – You very helpfully e-mailed to me the ‘if asked’ press strategy which was very useful in my meeting with Jonathan. He immediately indicated to me that he had received a telephone call from Mrs Gillian MACKENZIE, she told him that the PCA had just released its findings in respect of a discipline enquiry regarding two Detectives from Gosport including a DI. Jonathan said that he had called C/Supt BASSON & had confirmed this.

Mrs MACKENZIE went on to tell him that we had launched a further investigation into the death of her mother at Gosport WM Hosp. Jonathan went on to say that other enquiries he had made with a ‘source’ indicated to him that this may be another ‘Shipman’ and that it was a story worth following – he mentioned the surprisingly accurate figure of 600 possible related deaths.

Without confirming anything else, I gave him almost verbatim the ‘if asked’ line and he will quote that I am sure. Jonathan intends to run the story soon and will I suspect go on the line of a possible mass killer. 

Ray; I know that you have spoken to the Health Trust – could you also warn the relevant CPS re this. It may act as a catalyst for an earlier response. Also it may be helpful to speak with Mrs MACKENZIE to effect some damage limitation.” (HCO003619, p1)


Det Supt Watts ended the relevant section of his note in these terms: “The above for info of all concerned - obviously Jonathan now has a new good source. Ray & I will speak tomorrow” (HCO003619, p1). 


It is clear from the documents that Hampshire Constabulary immediately alerted Portsmouth HealthCare NHS Trust to the approach from the Portsmouth News. On 23 March, Lesley Humphrey, Quality Manager for the Trust, informed Max Millett, Chief Executive of the Trust, along with others including Eileen Thomas, Nursing Director, Ian Piper, Operational Director, Peter King, Personnel Director and Dr Richard Ian Reid, Medical Director and also a consultant at Gosport War Memorial Hospital (DOH600033). 


On 3 April, the Portsmouth News published the story on its front page under the headline “Probe Into Suspicious Death at Hospital – police investigation into alleged unlawful killing of patient, 91”. The article suggested that detectives had prepared a dossier on the death and that the police might have to re-examine up to 600 other deaths at the hospital (OSM100767, p1; OSM100766, p1).


The front page newspaper article stated that the hospital was now “at the centre of a major police investigation into the alleged unlawful killing of an elderly patient”. It pointed out that nobody had been arrested or questioned under caution but said that a file had been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) following a complaint to police by Mrs Mackenzie about the standard of care given to her mother (OSM100766, p1).


The article was combined with a full-page investigation on page 3 – “Mystery at the War Memorial”. The newspaper reported that Gosport had fought to save its hospital:

“The people of Gosport are intensely proud of the complex – and very defensive of it. When it was threatened with closure in a 1980s health shake up, a huge campaign was launched. The campaign didn’t merely convince health chiefs to keep it open but also to invest in it, and a £10m revamp was ordered which made the hospital much bigger and gave it a range of state-of-the-art facilities.” (OSM100766, p1; DOH603574, p1)


The page 3 investigation also stated: “Today [Gladys Richards’] daughter, Gillian Mackenzie, refused to be drawn on the inquiry but said I hope that I will never see anyone die in the circumstances in which my mother died.” The report went much further than citing just one case: “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” (OSM100766, p1; DOH603574, p1). 


Hampshire Constabulary confirmed the investigation into the death of one patient in both a statement and a comment from two senior officers, who stressed that Portsmouth HealthCare NHS Trust and the Royal Hospital Haslar had cooperated fully in their investigation. Det Supt Watts would not comment on the inquiry. However, he did say: “I can confirm it is an allegation of unlawful killing” (OSM100766, p1; DOH603574, p1). 


The Portsmouth News pressed Det Ch Insp Burt about the investigation into other deaths. He was quoted as saying: 

“When the CPS makes a decision in this case, whatever that might be, a decision will be made as to what would be the most appropriate course of action to take. We are conscious of the fact that we are dealing with extremely sensitive issues and any decision about further action will be taken with great care and consideration for all persons who may potentially be involved.” (OSM100766, p1; DOH603574, p1)


The article suggested that the Trust was aware of the investigation, had cooperated and took both complaints and patient safety very seriously. Mr Piper was reported as saying: “The trust did receive a complaint in August 1998 over the standard of care related to the lady concerned. We always take complaints very seriously and that complaint was investigated” (OSM100766, p1; DOH603574, p1). 


In an accompanying article on the same page, the Portsmouth News reported Mrs Mackenzie’s criticisms of the police investigation under the headline “Daughter’s complaint leads to rap for detectives". Mrs Mackenzie is quoted as saying: 

“I went with a serious concern to Gosport Police station and they prepared a file for consideration by the CPS. The file contained no statements – not even a written statement from me – no interviews and no medical reports. In fact I don’t know what they had in the file. Literally within a few weeks, I had a phone call from the police officer saying it was his opinion there was no case to answer.” (OSM100766, p1; DOH603574, p1) 


The newspaper reported that the Police Complaints Authority had disciplined Detective Inspector (Det Insp) Stephanie Morgan for making an “inappropriate remark” to Mrs Mackenzie and a second officer for “investigative failures” (OSM100766, p1; DOH603574, p1).


The coverage of the story by the Portsmouth News prompted other action. Nine days later, Pauline Spilka, a nursing auxiliary, explained that reading the articles had led her to come forward: 

“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.” (HCO110756, p1)


Hampshire Constabulary wrote to the editor of the Portsmouth News, Mike Gilson, objecting to a sentence in one of the 3 April articles, which stated that a complaint against the police by Mrs Mackenzie had been “upheld”. Ch Supt Basson, Head of the Department of Professional Standards at Hampshire Constabulary, wrote: 

“I was very disappointed to read an article on page 3 of your 3rd April edition concerning a complaint against police made by Mrs Gillian Mackenzie, where you inaccurately reported that the complaint had been ‘upheld’.

As you will be aware, my department investigates such complaints and submits a report to the Police Complaints Authority for their decision. In this instance my investigating officer had concluded; ‘this investigation has not found any of Mrs Mackenzie’s allegations to be founded and no impropriety has been found on the part of either officer’. 

This recommendation was accepted by the Police Complaints Authority. It is therefore, in my opinion, incorrect to say the complaint has been upheld and the officers ‘disciplined’. Whilst it is correct that two officers received advice in relation to related matters, this is not a ‘finding of guilt’ nor a formal disciplinary outcome within the meaning of the Police Act 1996. 

I would invite you to consider the appropriateness of correcting this matter, but would certainly ask you to correct your cuttings file so that any future reference to this matter is properly represented.” (HCO007048, p2)


Mr Gilson replied on 19 April in these terms: 

“I am sorry it has taken a little while to respond to your letter April 4. I have now had a chance to investigate the story of which you complain.

You will be aware that the Police Complaints Authority’s view is that some of Mrs Mackenzie’s complaints were indeed upheld. In a letter sent to Mrs Mackenzie by the PCA it describes the ‘operational advice’ given to your officers as ‘not unlike a verbal warning’ which we have taken to be some form of disciplinary action.

I have informed my news desk that this is not viewed as disciplinary action under the Police Act 1996 and thank you for clarifying the matter.” (HCO501788, p1)


The day after publishing its initial story, the Portsmouth News reported that “Suspicious death is under microscope:

“Health ministers are keeping a close eye on the unfolding drama at the Gosport war memorial hospital, it emerged today.

The Department of Health is refusing to comment officially on an investigation into the alleged killing of an elderly patient at the hospital until the Crown Prosecution Service has completed its findings.

But sources disclosed the case is being tracked at the highest levels – and has already been brought to the attention of health secretary Alan Milburn’s office.

… A DOH source said: ‘The department is keeping a very tight watching brief to see the outcome of the CPS investigation. If action needs to be taken as a result they will not hesitate to do that.’

… A Hampshire police spokeswoman said; ‘As part of our research, officers have been collecting statistics at the hospital over a time period but that is a matter of routine.

We have received no other complaints and we have not reviewed or asked for any other hospital files. We are only looking at this one incident.’

A spokesman for Mr Milburn said: ‘This case is being investigated by the CPS so there is nothing further we can say about it at this time.’” (DOH603590, p1)


The Portsmouth News quoted Peter Viggers, MP for Gosport, as saying that Mrs Mackenzie’s complaint was “being properly handled by the police and by the Portsmouth Healthcare (NHS) Trust. I would only become involved if there was a breakdown of the normal authorities” (DOH603590, p1).


In further coverage on 7 April, the Portsmouth News disclosed that three more families had come forward to the police with complaints about the treatment of their loved ones. The newspaper named two of them. Its article included an interview with Mike Wilson, the son of Edna Purnell:

“Today, Mike Wilson, one of those at the centre of the fresh inquiries, said he had protested to a health watchdog that his mother, also 91, fell into a ‘trance-like’ state before she died at the War Memorial in December 1998.

Edna Purnell, who lived in Lee-on-the-Solent, had been sent there to recuperate after a hip operation at Gosport’s Royal Hospital Haslar.

The health service ombudsman, who later examined a complaint by her son Mike Wilson against Portsmouth HealthCare (NHS) Trust, cleared the hospital of any blame for her death. 

The ombudsman concluded: ‘I have not found evidence of unsatisfactory medical or nursing care, and I am satisfied that Mrs Purnell was not given excessive doses of morphine.’

But the report criticised the hospital for the way in which some of Mrs Purnell’s medical notes were destroyed. It said: ‘The early destruction of the records was contrary to the trust’s own policy and went against official guidance.’ 

The [Portsmouth HealthCare NHS] trust expressed their deep regret for what had happened and said that it was the only time such an error had been made.” (DOH603589, p1)


The second named case involved Jack Williamson, who died two days after his wife, Ivy. The newspaper reported his son as saying: 

“My mother had terminal cancer and was going to die. But with my dad I can’t understand. When he died they said that he had given up, but to be dead within a week of my mum dying just seemed to be rather strange.” (DOH603589, p1)


The reports in the Portsmouth News led to some, limited, coverage in national newspapers. The Sun carried a report on 9 April (OSM100960), and the following day a short article appeared in The Times, written by its crime correspondent, Stewart Tendler (OSM100973). 


On 18 April, the Portsmouth News reported that six more people had complained about the treatment of their relatives at the hospital. Hampshire Constabulary described the situation as follows: 

“We have had calls from six people now who have voiced concerns to us. We will be going to see those people to try to clarify what their concerns are … Officers have interviewed a number of medical personnel at the Gosport War Memorial in connection with the initial inquiry, although none was quizzed under arrest or under caution … It remains the case that we have only received one complaint and that everyone who has been questioned has done so voluntarily.” (DOH600040, pp1–2)


The article reported the Trust’s position as follows:

“Operations director Ian Piper earlier told The News the trust had carried out a full internal inquiry into a complaint over the standard of care of the 91-year-old patient. He confirmed: ‘No member of staff has been disciplined as a result.’” (DOH600040, p1)


On 25 July, the Portsmouth News reported: “Senior detectives investigate events surrounding other patient’s death. Elderly woman’s death: doctors will not be prosecuted.” Detective Superintendent (Det Supt) Jonathon (John) James was quoted as saying: 

“Following the publicity concerning the inquiry into Mrs Richard’s death, a number of members of the public contacted us expressing concerns about the circumstances of deaths of relatives at Gosport war Memorial hospital.

We can confirm we are conducting preliminary inquiries to determine whether or not the matters should be subject of a more intensive investigation. That process is more concerned with us assuring ourselves that there is no need to widen the investigation.” (DOH603587, p1)


The report stated that Det Supt James would not reveal how many patients were involved (DOH603587). Mr Piper, for the Trust, was quoted as saying: “We are reassured that the CPS has not found evidence to pursue a prosecution. We have every confidence in the staff at Gosport War memorial hospital and the care that they provide” (DOH603587, p1).


The continuing coverage in the Portsmouth News was followed by two other newspaper reports referring to the police investigation: The Sunday Telegraph on 29 July and the Southern Daily Echo on 30 July (DOH603584).


On 7 October, the Southern Daily Echo reported an exchange between Mrs Mackenzie and Mr Millett: 

“During the Portsmouth Healthcare NHS Trust public meeting held at Fareham civic offices Mrs MacKenzie asked Max Millett, chief executive of Portsmouth Healthcare NHS Trust, to answer her ‘many questions’ over her mother’s death. Mr Millett pledged to answer each of Mrs Mackenzie’s questions by letter. He refused to be drawn into a face-to-face discussion.”


On 23 October, the Independent reported the decision to set up the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI) inquiry. Two days later, the Health Service Journal stated that the inquiry followed two deaths that had already been investigated. It quoted an anonymous Portsmouth HealthCare NHS Trust spokesperson as saying that the Trust had been “exonerated” (DOH900594). 


On 6 November, the Southern Daily Echo reported Mr Millett’s reaction in these terms: 

“Chief executive Max Millett said: ‘We welcome the commission’s visit and its review of the service we provide for older people at Gosport War Memorial Hospital. We hope the CHI visit will help reassure people about the care provided today and allow us to demonstrate the progress we have made in service provision over the past two or three years.’”


CHI Chief Executive Peter Homa said:

“CHI is undertaking this investigation to look into concerns over the quality and culture of care that patients, who are elderly and particularly vulnerable, have received at Gosport War Memorial Hospital. The findings of our investigation will result in lessons for the whole of the NHS and this is especially important at a time when community and primary care services are undergoing major change.” (OSM100617, pp2–3; DOH601570; DOH603422)