Tuesday, 22 April 2008

GMC's David Southall Fiasco

The Daily Mail (and the Mail on Sunday) is really going downhill these days, I'm afraid. Things started looking a little poor for them when they began writing about plastic bags in the sort of Messianistic tones usually reserved for Prime Ministerial comments on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. But their coverage of the Dr David Southall story in today's edition must surely represent the most pathetic attempt at journalism ever to disgrace a national paper.

This being a NEWSpaper, one might be forgiven for expecting to read something NEW in the material it features. However, the article in question begins, "A disgraced paediatrician has won a legal battle to overturn his suspension from working as a doctor after being struck off the medical register. David Southall was found guilty in December of serious professional misconduct. "

And those words, together with the sentence "The GMC conceded that the suspension order was fatally flawed" towards the end of the article, are the only things that could possibly be considered news - the rest is a rehash of the various allegations made against Southall by a succession of complainants. To be honest, I couldn't care less whether Southall is innocent or guilty - although I suspect he's probably innocent - and it's reasonable enough for the paper to bias the article towards a "guilty" perspective in the absence of any more recent finding.

But the point of the story is to reveal that he has managed to overturn the General Medical Council's ruling. So surely it might be appropriate to explain how, and why, this ruling was found to be total bullshit? The Mail apparently thinks not, preferring to fall back on its more traditional "awwww, guess what..." approach, but, for once, the BBC is a little more forthcoming with the facts.

Simply put, "The GMC told the High Court that rules used to apply for Dr Southall's suspension were introduced in 2004. As the allegations centred on events prior to 2004, the previous set of rules should have been applied, which would have meant the ban was not imposed. " I can't be the only person to think that's a terrifying admission from the GMC, can I?

After all, in order to reach their decision on Southall's future, the GMC's panel sat through hours and hours of cross examination, in a hearing that lasted for weeks. They were expected to carefully follow argument and counter argument from legal counsel for both sides. They had to get to grips with witness testimonies and determine whether the complainants or Southall were telling lies.

In short, it was essential that they should have fully understood the issues before them, and they had a fully qualified legal advisor on hand to help them out with any technicalities that might baffle them.

And now, months after the fact, it transpires that the folks to whom this monumental task was entrusted didn't even know which set of rules they should be following. It's not as though they have many options, is it? If they couldn't muster the mind-power to figure out the appropriate procedures, or to ask if they weren't sure, what possible confidence can anyone have in their final decision, or the means by which they arrived at it? In a word, none. The GMC's findings against Southall must now be considered absolutely unsafe, purely because those responsible for making those findings have shown themselves unfit to be let out on their own.

Such an outcome is unfortunate, to say the least. If Southall is innocent, it would be very unfair to subject him to yet more investigation. On the other hand, if he is guilty as charged, it seems most unjust to put the complainants through the distress of a further hearing. And yet the allegations they have made against him are very, very serious and it cannot be right to impose upon him - or anyone - the findings of a tribunal that has shown beyond doubt that it doesn't know what it's supposed to be doing. After all, how many more mistakes and misunderstandings might it have made over the course of the hearing? Even in the unlikely event that it hasn't made any, the public interest lies in being sure of that, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find the matter sent back to the GMC for a fresh hearing in the not too distant future.

In the meantime, it seems that Southall will be back before the GMC on another matter in the next couple of weeks. Would you, in his place, have any confidence in getting a fair hearing? I certainly wouldn't, because it occurs to me that the GMC's very considerable embarrassment over this issue would be greatly soothed if Southall could be found guilty of something (anything!) else, and struck off as a result, before this fiasco gets anywhere near an appeal hearing.

Again, that seems unfair on both Southall and the complainants because, whatever the outcome, there will be questions as to its validity, and whether it was influenced by the need to justify - or disassociate from - an earlier decision. Sadly, the GMC's credibility amongst those it is supposed to serve and regulate is now so devalued that such an underhanded stunt seems not only plausible, but entirely likely, and, under those circumstances, I think Southall would be quite justified in boycotting the forthcoming hearing.

Even discounting the possibility of malice, however, both doctors and the public must now be asking - in very loud voices - whether the GMC is capable of performing any function whatsoever, no matter how trivial, without completely screwing it up. Based on its handling of the Southall hearing, it would appear not. I am, for the moment, at a loss to find words sufficiently vitriolic to describe the GMC's wholesale incompetence, but it cannot, now, be too long before demands for the abolition of this utterly incapable organisation become too loud to ignore.

Billy Seggars.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is not the first time the GMC has done this.