Rebel with a cause

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Kenneth Roy

This is John Bannon’s last day in Scottish public life: his term of office as a non-executive member of Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board ends at midnight. His departure should not go unnoticed, for it would be difficult to think of an individual who has done more for the good of Scotland in the recent past.
     SR readers will not need to be reminded that Mr Bannon is the ministerial appointee who dared to challenge Scotland’s official culture of compliance by speaking out against the actions of his own board.

Frustrated in his long investigation into the Blawarthill hospital redevelopment, and the consequent withdrawal of funding from St Margaret of Scotland Hospice, he wrote to the cabinet secretary for health, Nicola Sturgeon, and took his case to a wider, influential audience through the Scottish Review. SR readers will also be aware that, in the last few weeks, there was a suggestion that Mr Bannon had breached the board’s code of conduct by communicating with this magazine. Had that suggestion been pursued, his distinguished service might well have ended in official ignominy. In the end, however, it was not pursued, a change of heart that reflects well on the board and its chairman.
     Although his tenacity and diligence are now well known, little is known about John Bannon himself. He is a man who has struggled with serious ill-health for much of his life. The contribution he has made to a range of health bodies, public and voluntary, in the last 20 years has been shaped by his own experience as a consumer; I understand from friends that he began volunteering for health causes when he was a teenager. His commitment to the ethos and principles of the National Health Service is complete. It runs deep. That is partly why his stand against his own board should command the utmost respect.
     Two years ago, John Bannon MBE won the Glasgow Lord Provost’s annual medal for public service. Across the various categories of awards, no one gained more nominations than Mr Bannon. it is worth recalling what Lord Provost Bob Winter said of him that night: ‘John is a truly remarkable individual who, despite ill-health, has never shirked from boldly representing the needs of patients. The nominations indicate how highly regarded he is by all who have met him, and it is a great pleasure to be celebrating his hard work and dedication’.
     Is he giving up the fight? Not a bit of it. He is already thinking of setting up a health forum. I said a couple of weeks ago that, after the great inconvenience he had caused to Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, he might not be inundated with offers to take up similar positions in Scottish public life. I hope I’m mistaken about that and that Scotland proves to be larger in spirit – large enough to accommodate this rebel with a cause.

Now that John Bannon is going, what of the campaign for the hospice itself? As Easter approaches, there is hope in the air. It is too fragile to be called confidence, but a new impetus seems to have been created by the parliamentary debate initiated by Des McNulty with the help of an all-party group of supporters including Gil Paterson, Jackie Baillie, Ross Finnie and Jackson Carlaw.
     Unlike most of the hospice campaigners who were present at Holyrood, or watched the debate on television, I felt that Nicola Sturgeon, in her closing statement, went as far as she reasonably could in her commitment to St Margaret’s. She talked of a ‘window of opportunity’ to find a solution acceptable to both parties. Whether Miss Sturgeon has been working behind the scenes to facilitate this precious space, or simply changed the dynamic by declaring its existence, the effect has been positive. There is, for the first time, a possibility that it is all going to end happily. We will know soon enough.
     What has the campaign, in the few months I have been involved in it, taught me? Three things.
     First, it is possible for a journalist to conduct a campaign without any contact with, or from, the public relations department of the organisation at the centre of the dispute. I still find that barely credible. Could it be that, with the Purcell debacle, a disaster for the public relations industry among other things, and my own experience with Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board, the corporate reliance on the PR machine will be rather less in future?
     Second, the internet has made it possible for such a campaign to be conducted, and to make an impact, without the help of the mainstream press. The almost complete lack of interest of my old paper, the Herald, in a story touching on the lives of so many people in the newspaper’s core West of Scotland constituency has been profoundly sad to witness. For this state of affairs, I do not blame the Herald’s working journalists; the responsibility rests at a higher level. Until recently, the apathy of this newspaper – whatever the explanation – would have killed the story. Not any more: as the hold of the traditional media steadily loosens, so the influence of the new media gathers.
     Third, the campaign would have had little chance of success without a catalyst. It was begun in January at a time when the name John Bannon meant nothing to me, but it was only when he broke ranks that it was taken seriously.
     If, as I hope, the hospice is saved, John Bannon will deserve the public’s gratitude. But, actually, he deserves it already.