The press are entitled to campaign against the Government's health reforms; but we know they play down stories that show changes are in the interests of patients. The problems arise when our position is misrepresented. The Department of Health writes letters to editors on a weekly basis, challenging misleading statements in the papers.
Yet how do we ensure a fair hearing in the first place? Recently we took the trouble to invite all health correspondents to a briefing at which Dr David Salisbury, our immunisation expert, explained the NHS has secured enough doses of vaccine to ensure at-risk groups will get their free flu jab this winter as usual, through their GP.
This was part of a proactive media relations strategy to counter previous fears of a vaccine shortage, which the vaccine manufacturing industry has since proved were unfounded.
Inevitably, most print media reported the worst possible construction they could put on the news: that there would still be delays (in some cases, but only of a few weeks). That's life. However, the Daily Express went further, alleging ‘hundreds of thousands of vulnerable patients will be forced to buy flu jabs privately this winter, because the NHS vaccination programme has descended into chaos'.
That's nonsense. The correspondent asked about the availability of private jabs at the briefing, and was told that 97 per cent of vaccine is supplied by the NHS. She later claimed her byline went on another reporter's story.
A short correction from Dr Salisbury was printed, which just about matched the column inches of the leader, but paled beside the front-page splash that plumbed new depths of inaccuracy and alarmism.
It's an extreme example, but depressingly common with this newspaper. A scare story gets the facts wrong, but provokes a furious editorial (‘Government can have no excuse for jab shortage') fulminating about bureaucratic incompetence.
There is no excuse for such lazy journalism. But what do we do about it? My press officers will continue to do their best to put our side of the story across, and answer whatever questions reporters ask. The real victims are the readers.
Jon Hibbs is director of news at the Department of Health