In this month’s From the Newsroom, The Age’s investigations editor Michael Bachelard shares exclusive behind-the-scenes insights on how his recent exposé into nursing homes came about.
Sometimes, investigative reporting is a slow burn. But my recent series on nursing homes was slower than most. In fact, for long periods, the fire was in danger of going out entirely.
I was first approached to write about a nursing home in 2010 by a Catholic priest who was being kicked out of his job at an Italian facility in Rosanna, Melbourne.
The home was run by a former Labor aged care minister, Peter Staples. And it had its share of problems – resident complaints, an unfair dismissal case, people on stress leave, odd financial dealings.
I followed that story for several months, but it was the flood of calls I had as a result that made me want to delve deeper.
Nurses, residents, families of residents, called saying this home was just a tiny part of a systemic issue.
One nurse in particular, who was off the record, talked to me about what would be become a consistent theme: poor staffing and big profits.
I pitched an investigative story to my editor. She liked it, but she wanted me to do something else first. Then something again. Then I was appointed Indonesia correspondent and headed off to Jakarta. For three years the story was on ice.
I got back in 2015. The Aged Care legislation had changed, the government had changed. But the problems, I was convinced, remained.
This was an issue that affected nearly 200,000 Australians and would come to have an impact on millions more in coming years.
For almost another three years, though, this was always the story that went on the backburner. Others were more pressing or more time sensitive.
Other media outlets wrote horror stories about the treatment of individuals or poor nursing homes. They never looked hard at the systemic issues behind them.
I began to feel that I would be in aged care myself before this story ever got written.
Still, I chipped away. I interviewed scores of people, then often had to reinterview them.
Three subjects died along the way.
Various arms of the government – the Health department, the parliament, the “Aged Care Sector Committee” – kept up a continual barrage of reports. Reading them alone was virtually a full-time job.
Slowly, though, momentum was growing. My colleague Nick McKenzie and I put a note out asking people to come forward with their stories. Twenty or so did.
People wanted their stories told.
And so finally, I took time off from my editing roles, bit the bullet and wrote it. Fairfax backed a series of more than 10,000 words over four days of depressing and complex journalism.
The feedback – except from the industry – has been overwhelmingly positive. People are grateful that someone has taken their concerns about a diabolically complex, hidden and compromised system seriously.
And, with any luck, this reporting will help build momentum in the government to open it up, to expose it to more scrutiny and better (not necessarily more) regulation.
Then, perhaps, we can say we helped prompt change in a system that’s in dire need of it.