Four health secretaries and two NHS England chief executives have all paid tribute to HSJ’s political columnist Michael White, who has retired 40 years after filing his first article.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said: “Michael – incredibly – has been writing an HSJ column for most the NHS’s 69-year existence. He covered the work of no fewer than 16 health secretaries in that time – which is just one reason why we all valued his perspective and insight.

”We’ll miss his frank and sage writing, but I wish him all the very best for a well-deserved retirement.”

Michael White is best known as the Guardian’s political editor from 1990-2006. He worked at the paper from 1977, the same year he began his HSJ column. Mr White’s only break from his HSJ duties came from 1984-88 while he served as The Guardian’s Washington correspondent.

‘He has done so with a unique combination of inside knowledge, tongue-in-cheek humour and deep compassion both for the service and those who work for it’

Manchester mayoral hopeful and Labour’s most recent health secretary, Andy Burnham, remembered: “When HSJ arrived in the department on a Friday morning I would usually turn to Mike’s column first – often with a sense of trepidation as he didn’t hold back. But his passion for and knowledge of the NHS, unmatched among political journalists, always shone through, as did his wisdom and moderation.”

Bowing out

Former Labour health secretary Alan Milburn told HSJ: “The NHS is part of Britain’s political landscape. For some that is a matter of regret. For others, a core strength. Whatever view you take, politics impacts decision-makers at every level in the NHS. For four decades Mike White has provided unrivalled and authoritative insight into the politics of health.

“He has done so with a unique combination of inside knowledge, tongue-in-cheek humour and deep compassion both for the service and those who work for it. If anyone wants an example of journalism at its best they need look no further than a Mike White HSJ column.”

Stephen Dorrel, NHS Confederation chair and health secretary from 1995-97, said: “Michael White has established a unique track record as a source of insight and wit, and he will be missed by HSJ and all its readers. It’s hard to believe he’s bowing out; he will leave behind a very big hole.”

Mr White’s time as HSJ columnist coincided with the rise of NHS general management.

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said: ”Read Michael’s take on the NHS and all its foibles and the fog disappears and the landscape reveals itself. He’ll be hugely missed - for his wry and gentle wit, his reservoir of political and historical anecdote and, of course, his unrivalled network of beautifully indiscreet sources.” 

Mr Stevens’ predecessor Sir David Nicholson reminisced: “Our involvement with the NHS mirrors each other. He started writing for the Health and Social Services Journal [as HSJ was known in 1977], at the same time I started as a trainee in the NHS.

“Economic disaster, the IMF and the introduction of cash limiting was the order of the day. Both of us ended our careers much better disposed to the political class and their attempts to improve healthcare than we started. Michael was a brilliant cut through writer, something particularly important in a service well known for its impenetrable jargon and flowery rhetoric, often facing us with the truth unvarnished.”

Spiky challenge

Nuffield Trust chief executive Nigel Edwards commented: “Michael always brought three things too often missing from NHS commentary. He often gave us the bigger picture, reminding us that the NHS is part of a larger political scene. This was accompanied by the ability to take a long view and a helpful, often amusing and sometimes spiky challenge to what can be an inward-looking world: he was not afraid to tell his readers what they needed to hear.”

Former Department of Health communications director and current chief executive of the independent press standards organisation Matt Tee said: “Most political journalists know a little about a lot of subjects and only know one subject well – politics.

“Michael is one of the best political journalists of his era, but his understanding of health policy also surpasses all his colleagues. NHS leaders are always attempting to read the political runes and their likely impact on the service. Michael’s HSJ column was essential to understanding what was happening and why.”

‘There are other good political correspondents around, but Mike White is irreplaceably candid and candidly irreplaceable’

HSJ editor Alastair McLellan said: “One of the reasons I joined HSJ in 2002 was so that I could say, tongue-in-cheek, that I was Michael White’s editor. Described by Andrew Marr in his history of journalism as one “the best journalists of his age”, Michael wears his eminence lightly but suffers no fools – as his followers on Twitter will attest. He has been a friend and adviser to HSJ editors since the mid-1970s. Both we and our readers have been very lucky.”

HSJ’s comment editor Andy Cowper said: “Mike brings a breadth and depth of perspective on British political and social history that is consistently a joy to read. He listens and learns, but retains his own line on things. He has great judgment, and is not afraid to share it. This once saw Alastair Campbell punch him for pointing out that Campbell’s late proprietor Robert Maxwell was a massive crook.

”And he’s a genuinely nice guy. There are other good political correspondents around, but Mike White is irreplaceably candid and candidly irreplaceable.”

The tribute from Nick Timmins, Mr White’s contemporary as the Financial Times’ public policy editor, provided HSJ’s headline: “Forty years of wit, wisdom and insight, delivered with that inimitable wry Whitean touch”.

40 years of wit and wisdom: Michael White retires from HSJ