Exclusive on Byline Times: How a highly controversial contract to collect data on thousands of English Covid-19 hospital patients was never put out to competitive tender

Image by Syaibatul Hamdi from Pixabay

An expose by The Guardian earlier this month revealed that confidential data from patients being treated for Cofid-19 in England was being collected and processed by tech companies – two of which were highly controversial companies.

Now after persistently chasing up officials NHS England have admitted that the contracts which involved the US company Palantir – run by Trump supporting right wing billionaire Peter Thiel – and British start up Faculty – which has links to Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister’s chief adviser – were never put out to tender.

Read how they did it on Byline Times here

Will data journalism save investigative journalism?

The collapse of the print media and the rise of the free internet is threatening to destroy the income that allows traditional journalism to thrive.

As papers  and TV cut and cut again staff  they have fewer and fewer  resources to scrutinise and investigate government, business, crime and the dodgy guys have a much greater chance of getting away with it.

So just like the ancient search for the Holy Grail  journalists have been looking for a way to fund their time-consuming and expensive investigative operations. Some have sought world-wide alliances like Alan Rusbridger,editor of The Guardian, to bring an international flavour – like the Prism survellience scandal – to journalism. Others like Rupert Murdoch have thought pay walls  and monopoly control will fund journalism.

But they might just be a third way. The government’s decision enthusiastically endorsed by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, to open up data has provided an amazing opportunity for a new breed of journalists – data journalists – to exercise their amazing mathematical  and computer savvy skills- and create new stories. But they have also opened up an extraordinary lucrative way to raise cash from business for a tailor-made service to meet their individual needs.

Exaro, the news organisation, who employ me on a freelance basis, may have just found the answer to marry this. By exploiting government data  Exaro’s data journalists have  produced a major story on the state of liquidations in England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland ( see http://www.exaronews.com/articles/5008/liquidations-are-running-at-four-times-level-before-credit-crunch ). But this journalism led investigation – by Tim Wood, Henry Taylor and George Arnett – also has a very lucrative spin-off that may bring an income worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As Jasper Jackson ( son of the late Mark Jackson. my friend and one of Fleet Street’s great colourful  journalist characters) discloses ( see http://www.themediabriefing.com/article/exclusive-exaro-news-channels-investigative-journalism-into-data-products) the possibilities of a tailor-made service that can change the finances.

As Mark Watts, editor in chief of Exaro, puts it: ”

“There are data journalism teams out there, but they traditionally don’t worry about making things commercial. What we are doing is rather different because it is journalists who are doing it, generating material for editorial purposes, but in the same breath doing it for commercial purposes.

The editorial aspect is important. The data interrogation techniques are very specific and journalists are also able to present things in a meaningful way. There is a sense of having to distil it, and make sense of the data.”

So have we discovered the Holy Grail, the way to break stories, subsidise other important investigations, without compromising editorial integrity? Francis Maude may have to put up with data journalism providing an income stream enabling us to investigate  and scrutinise him and Cabinet ministers even more thoroughly. A double-edged sword at times.