There were barbed exchanges on media freedom yesterday after GBC posted a detailed account of how it was refused permission to film inside the critical care unit at St Bernard’s Hospital during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year.
GBC had asked to film inside the CCU in order to show viewers the harsh reality of the virus and its impact on the community, much as how broadcasters in many other countries have done over the past year.
But the request raised delicate issues about patient confidentiality and safety at a time when the GHA and in particular the CCU staff were under intense pressure, with many patients fighting for their lives and deaths being announced daily.
GBC had committed to film with sensitivity to respect patients’ dignity and the Gibraltar Government had cleared the request, subject to clinical approval.
But senior medical staff decided to decline permission in the interest of patient welfare.
That decision was based on a clinical assessment based on patient welfare and was respected by the Gibraltar Government, No.6 Convent Place said yesterday.
Despite repeated requests over many weeks, GBC was not allowed into the CCU to film, although it was provided with some bodycam footage filmed by staff on the CCU that was later shown on Viewpoint.
Dr Hamish Thomson, the Clinical Director of Intensive Care and, at the time, the Deputy Medical Director at the GHA and a member of Gold Command for the Covid-19 response, said it had been a complicated decision for doctors to take.
“We needed to balance the need of the population to understand what was occurring in the hospital with the obvious need to limit the disruption to the highly pressured running of the ICU,” he said in a statement.
“Another vital consideration was the confidentiality and dignity of our patients, many of whom were fighting for their lives and some of whom would tragically lose that battle.”
“In the context of our small and tightly knit community this was something we knew would be difficult to safeguard.”
“Added into this was an understanding of pain being experienced and the massive personal sacrifice being made by families unable to be with their loved ones in the hospital.”
“As such it was decided clinically to decline the request but to find solutions that would allow some images to be available to the media - body cam footage - while exploring ways of having a more complete record available for the GHA’s own debrief and for posterity.”
The decision to refuse GBC access proved controversial because the GHA, at the request of the Senior Clinical Management Team and in order to secure a visual record for use in the future public inquiry, later arranged brief access for a cameraman from a private company who had offered his services free of charge.
The aim was to have a visual record for internal use and for the future public inquiry in the handling of the pandemic.
But according to GBC, the government had at the time also considered providing “vetted images” of the footage to the media, although ultimately none of the footage was released.
For the GSD, this amounted to “manipulation of the media and news given to the public” and was symptomatic of a government obsessed with controlling the message and “supremely sensitive” to criticism.
It added too that the decision to allow access to a private cameraman was at odds with the government’s “dogged refusal” to refuse access to unvaccinated relatives of people in care.
“The shocking news today that the government was prepared to consider access to people who had no reason to be on the facilities other than to produce vetted, controlled and manipulated images of the pandemic but that families were not being allowed on the facilities at the same time is a shocking reminder of the massive contradictions of this government and their obsession to control the news given to people,” said Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the Opposition.
“This is a government obsessed with spin and control of the air waves.”
“This is only the latest example of a style of government that pervades all other issues and sectors in which the government wants to tightly control any message on any issue so it can present its facts to the public on the basis that its performance is never under question.”
“This instance is not an isolated example.”
“This is also a further contradiction in the government’s attitude towards unvaccinated citizens who are unfairly being left behind when we are at zero resident cases and the circumstances no longer justify these controls.”
“The GSD will continue to speak up for these families who are being given unnecessary anxiety for pig-headed political decisions by Mr Picardo.”
Together Gibraltar leader Marlene Hassan Nahon tweeted that “questions must be answered on the Government's vetting of media via a private company, while forbidding access” to GBC.
The Equality Rights Group also added its voice to the row, saying GBC had been “pioneering, brave and demonstrated exactly the standards and professional ethics that quality journalism is about”.
“This society’s present and future rely much more than many give credence to on the high commitment of our media to its professional standards,” said the ERG’s Felix Alvarez.
“Journalism today, whether written or broadcast, is an information frontline for each and every one of us as citizens.”
“And it must be nurtured, supported and resourced by our institutions. It is an important balance and check on those who govern us.”
But the Gibraltar Government said GBC’s account of the issues it encountered trying to secure access to the CCU was inaccurate and had been “politicised and blown out of all proportion” by the GSD.
No.6 Convent Place said the government had acted in good faith throughout the pandemic, with patient care as its first and foremost consideration while providing “maximum access” to the media.
It said it had regularly allowed access to hospital facilities to GBC and other media to film and interview wherever possible, but that providing access to the CCU at a time of serious infection and death was not a decision that could be taken lightly.
According to No.6, the Chief Minister and the Ministry for Health had initially approved GBC’s request to film in the CCU, but subject to clinical advice confirming it was “safe and appropriate”.
When the clinical team declined the request given the impact it could have on patients, their relatives and staff, the government stood by the doctors’ decision.
“This was precisely the clinical advice given to the government and the view that was taken by senior medical staff at the GHA and by GHA Gold Command itself which was strongly opposed to media access at a time when families could not even visit their dying relatives and when the staff were under intense pressure,” No.6 said in a statement.
“The reason why consideration was, nonetheless, given to the use of a private film crew was at the express request also of the senior clinicians in the GHA, to maintain a record for posterity and for use in the GHA’s own internal debrief on the pandemic.”
“It was argued at the time by the clinicians advising the government that this was the best compromise. The government acceded to the clinician’s request and advice.”
The footage filmed by the private cameraman was not intended for broadcast, No.6 said, adding that to compare Gibraltar to other countries where such images had been broadcast was to ignore the small size of this community, where people are easily identifiable.
The government said it had worked in collaboration and cooperation with the media to provide information during the past challenging year, providing daily live press briefings and unrestricted access to health and civil contingencies professionals.
It accused the Opposition of “exaggerated distortions” on a “delicate and sensitive” issue, adding “this was never a question of a political decision to control the media”.
“I personally approved the GBC request for filming but always – as everything else we did during the pandemic - subject to the GHA clinicians’ concerns being satisfied,” Mr Picardo said.
“My Cabinet colleagues and I put those clinical issues first. I know that was the right thing to do.”
“I am totally confident that the vast majority of the public will agree that it was right to follow the clinical advice on these issues and not to permit political or media considerations to trump the medical considerations on this.”
“Mr Azopardi has been Minister for Health and he should understand the sensitivity of these matters more than most, but he has really let himself down over this issue, shooting from the hiplike a frustrated cowboy without first ascertaining the facts.”
“What is now clear, however, is that the GSD and Mr Azopardi would have allowed their egotistical desires to seek political advantage to prevail over the clinical advice of what was best for the patients and the GHA in the middle of the pandemic.”
“The GSD and Mr Azopardi would have looked first at their media strategy and not at their clinical strategy when faced with a broadcaster’s request to film in the GHA.”
“Given their chequered history of censorship against the media when they were in government, the GSD had better realise that they have no lessons to teach us on press freedom.”
“Given the facts now demonstrate how wrong Mr Azopardi has been, he might want to apologise to the clinicians who made absolutely the right decision in respect of this matter and withdraw his ridiculous statement.”