Stepping Hill Hospital, nurses, the police and the media

After all the recent scandals involving the press one might hope that they are being careful to avoid the assorted pitfalls they fall into with such frequency. More likely, however, than a collective discovery of higher journalistic and editorial standards is that the fear of the current Leveson Inquiry is temporarily keeping them from the more egregious examples of the past.

Last year there was the case of Rebecca Leighton the nurse who was accused of murdering patients at Stepping Hill Hospital. The tabloids described her as a party animal who disliked night shifts and who had recently been demoted – the setting for the “Angel of Death.” It then turned out that she was an entirely conscientious individual who had been temporarily made acting sister (a very responsible post for a fairly newly qualified nurse) and who stopped being acting sister because a permanent appointment was made. Ms. Leighton was released though the police made a remarkably churlish statement: “The (reason for the) decision to discontinue is that the evidence we had at the time has not built towards the crown court phase, so that we could bring a case at this point.”

Now, however, another nurse has been arrested in connection with the deaths. This time the police seem to be remaining a little more circumspect and the tabloid press a great deal more so and the arrested individual has been released on bail with enquiries continuing.

Thus far, however, Ms. Leighton has not received any terribly public apology from the police (if she has received one the fanfare has been a great deal less than that surrounding the arrest of the “angel of death.” Ms. Leighton has, however, been sacked by her hospital after it was established that she had admitted to police that she took an antibiotic, ibuprofen and a prescription-only opiate-based painkiller from work. To put this in context it looks very likely that Ms. Leighton took these agents to treat a minor aliment of her own which whilst contrary to hospital rules would have most likely been done to allow her to treat herself and not take time off work. No doubt wrong but hardly enough to justify dismissal and even the usually fairly draconian Nursing and Midwifery Council declined to strike her off for these offences.

The taking of these drugs seems to have been the sum total of Ms. Leighton’s offences and the police have declined to prosecute her over this. She is currently appealing against her dismissal and just possibly someone in Stepping Hill will be decent enough to give her back her job. Had there been no media and police involvement in her case it seems unlikely that the hospital would have sacked her. After all she has already spent 6 weeks in gaol and had her good name dragged through the gutter by the press which is rather more than her “crime” merited. Maybe then the police and media could apologise as well.

One might try to suggest that the media (and police) might have learned something and that the treatment of the latest possible suspect is the shape of things to come in such high profile cases. As I said above, however, I suspect the Leveson enquiry and the embarrassment of Ms. Leighton’s case is more likely to be the cause and expecting this to be a permanent change for the better is likely to be overwhelmingly naïve.

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