That precious thing when journalism helps to save lives

March 6, 2018 should have been my Dad’s 69th birthday. I say should have, because he died, several hours after my Mum had too, last September. It’s safe to say it’s a day I won’t forget.

The thumping on the front door was the first sign something was wrong. My daughters were in the bath, the doorbell it turns out wasn’t working, and I suspect the police officers at the door had been trying to get my attention for a while.

While my youngsters made the most of the sudden break from the bath-time routine to play noisily upstairs, the two incredibly caring officers gave me perhaps the worst news I’ve ever received. As a journalist, I’ve sat with people in the days after they’ve received terrible news (and far worse news in many respects) about a loved one and wondered how on earth they were coping. Over the next few days I was to learn how they do it: You just cope. And it helps massively when you having an amazingly supportive wife, too.

In hindsight, the next few days were a bit of a blur. There is a process which so many of you reading this will have been through, where every professional involved knows their part, and for me it was relatively smooth. Speaking to the coroner, speaking to doctors, speaking to nurses, speaking to the register office, speaking to the duty undertakers (I had no idea such a rota existed) and to a vicar who gave us such strength by listening, advising but never preaching.

Then there are the phone calls you have to make. To family, to friends, to my parents’ friends, there is no easy way of asking your Dad’s best mate to pull over on a dual carriageway several hundred miles away because you’re worried how he’s going to take the news and you’d rather he was stationary when he heard.

And that’s before the face to face encounters. Word gets round quickly, and everyone wants to show their support. And it means a lot.

But amid all of that, there’s one conversation I remember more than any, with the sort of clarity in hindsight I find remarkable. It was with the organ donation nurse at the Royal Preston Hospital. I couldn’t tell you her name because I can’t remember, but I do remember the conversation clearly.

It wasn’t possible to donate Mum’s organs, but Dad, to my surprise as he was a smoker, could help others. Would I be happy to consent to that? Looking back on it now, I’m still shocked I hesitated. Logic – to me, anyway – dictates that if you can help someone, you should. But in the emotion, the aftermath of the shock of losing a close relative, things aren’t always so clear.

Fortunately, and with the support of family, the decision was quickly taken to say yes. Clarity five months on has convinced me, to use a cliche, that it’s what Dad would have wanted.

In fact, I think the conversation with the nurse was the first time I’d laughed in the hours since the police had been at the door. Nothing can prepare you for the questions you get asked – there are some things a child should never be able to answer about their parents – but the nurse handled it with grace, sensitivity and a sense of purpose which stands out, five months on.

You get a lot of post in the weeks and months after a close relative (or in the case of my brother and I, two relatives) dies. Touching sympathy cards are, over time, replaced by requests for death certificates, and more recently, gentle reminders about dealing with parts of the Estate. Oh, and a very persistent estate agent who clearly really wants to sell Mum and Dad’s house, even wrapping up his latest round of bumpf in a ribbon to get my attention.

But perhaps the letter that meant far more than I expected was one which landed from the organ donation team at the Royal Preston sometime in November. They had taken part of Dad’s eyes and there was now a 30-something man and a 70-something woman hopefully with greater chances of improved eyesight as a result.

The letter is nothing fancy, but it means a lot.

But what has this to do with journalism? Well, because while I was go through an awful time supported by friends and family, the Daily Mirror was stepping up its campaign to make organ donation opt-out, rather than opt-in.

It’s a campaign which resulted in victory last week when the Government agreed to drive through changes which mean that the assumption is that organs will be donated unless someone has specifically opted out. 

It should result in up to 500 lives a year being saved. It’s a campaign I’ve watched from afar (I work for Trinity Mirror, but have had very little to do with the campaign) with admiration for the journalists involved, working sensitively with people who have a range of experiences around organ donation while at the same time using journalistic determination to ensure action takes place.

Cynics among you might say ‘So what? Newspapers have always run campaigns.’ And indeed they have. But at a time when you’re never far from someone who wants to knock journalism, it’s worth stepping back to appreciate the good it can still do, and indeed does.

What made the Mirror’s campaign special for me – other than the obvious – was that it combined the traditions of a strong print-led campaign with the innovation of a digital one. Front pages make an impact and set our a position, digital can grab readers and inspire them to do something.

For the Mirror’s campaign, that immediate moment came via a ‘contact your MP’ search box which provided email addresses, addresses and Twitter accounts to talk to your MP about the issue. Some people call it constructive journalism – empowering readers to take action. To me, it’s 21st century journalism:

mirror1

mirror contact

People live in the moment on their mobile phones. We need to grab their attention with compelling journalism and urge them to take action. That’s what the Mirror did so well.

It will save lives, hundreds every year. And for the thousands of people caught up in the immediate swirl of emotion and disbelief which follows the unexpected death of a loved one, it hopefully makes an emotionally difficult decision all the more logical.

I know it would have for me – and it’s a decision I’m so glad we got right as a family.

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