NHS, more fury, the media and activism

Oh dear, I’ve gotten quite angry again.

These last ten or so days have seen some massive stories – let’s just describe a few of them.

Look at all that. That’s just the stuff I thought of while eating my noodles at lunchtime, and each one is massive.

And what have been the two stories of the week? VAT got standardised to include pasties, and there isn’t a strike happening. That’s right, 20p on a £1 food item and people going about their regular job is bigger than everything above.

I have seen it suggested that the pasty tax accounts for somewhere between 0.02% and 0.03% of the economy, which, given the recent budget and the cost of healthcare is peanuts. We know that Cameron either lied or got confused about eating a Cornish pasty at Leeds. I can easily imagine misremembering where and when I ate a pasty, so I’m happy to be charitable on that. Hell, even if he lied I’m not particularly bothered as it’s so inconsequential, and we know he lies about much more important things already.

The strike that was discussed was, on the face of it, horrifically handled, initially by Francis Maude ably supported by the tabloid press. Telling people to top up and to keep some in a jerry can at home, to be on the safe side, is the equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded theatre – the only predictable outcome was massive queues and empty petrol stations, and sadly people getting hurt. And after all that, the strike isn’t even going ahead. Without wanting to sound like a conspiracy theorist, the boost to a weak economic quarter may well be a good thing for the government when those first quarter financial figures get announced. However, this story is one of poor politics and mismanagement. On the grand scheme, the fact a strike was discussed does not warrant higher billing than the stories I mentioned up front.

So, why have these two relatively minor stories won the day? Why have we largely ignored the damage being done to those most in need in favour of those with the greatest privilege, with the whiff of corruption looming?

I don’t know, but the mainstream media certainly has a role. The rolling and allotted news programs seem to focus on really simple, easy to tell stories, spending ever more time telling us ever less news. There is also an expected turnover period, meaning that once a story has been told there isn’t space for going into the same area in more depth – I noticed a tweet (sorry, I’ve lost the source) that said a BBC staffer preparing the audience for BBC Question Time said, this week, that the questions had to be topical, and so the NHS shouldn’t be raised. This in the week the Risk Register was leaked.

I sat and watched the ITN News while I was folding letters for the NHS pledge campaign. I saw politicians of all flavours trying to look comfortable and natural while ordering pasties and sausage rolls, while clearly bullshitting about how many they have each week. I saw government ministers telling people to top up their cars and keep jerry cans in the garage. I saw fearmongering about the pace at which drilling technology is being implemented. Nothing about the Risk Register, the economy or increasing social inequality.

These editing decisions, not putting the NHS above the pie tax or the economy above petrol buying, on the nations main news source are either laughably incompetent or criminally biased. Sadly, although I am not a consumer of that many news sources and haven’t monitored them that closely, I understand the problem is across the board. The stories get mentioned, but have not been investigated and examined in the way they should. People should be shown, or at least have easy access to, a clear picture on the important stuff: what is happening to the health service, what is happening to the economy, and how wealth and services are distributed between those that need them and those that can afford £250k to eat with Cameron and Osborne.

In part, the politicians are at fault here. Cameron and the Conservatives should be very pleased overall, as people talking about pie tax is massively preferable to people explaining why he has taken actions that will cause people to die because they are poor, and allowed his friends and business partners to profit from it. I don’t know how the Liberal Democrat leadership should feel, but then I haven’t cared even slightly about that for a while now.

The real political culprits here are Labour. They have had a week of open goals, and there have been occasional scores, but for the Eds to spend a day out and about eating sausage rolls, rather than pointing out the damage Osborne has done and continues to do to the economy, is barmy. They should be publicly pledging to repeal the NHS Bill.
But we can’t just blame politicians or the media, they are both built to give us what we want. We just aren’t aware or interested enough. The politicians literally get their jobs through a series of popularity contests. The media outlets are set up to ensure they maximise their profits – that’s why idiots like Delingpole and Mel Phillips are around – they draw huge numbers of clicks. This means that what they give you is what they think you want. I wrote a bit about media and healthcare reporting here, which looks at the tension between profit and quality healthcare reporting, and there has been a series of articles on media regulation at www.demsoc.org. So in addition to good regulation, we need to be savvy consumers if we want good media coverage of real political arguments. As a consumer, you should be demanding that you get critical analysis of the important issues.

After my rant on the day the Health and Social Care Bill was passed, lots of my Facebook friends got angry and wrote things on their walls. They largely hadn’t realised that they’d missed it, that the process had gone on for over a year, three readings in each house, and a pause for consultation. I am pleased that they felt a bit of outrage, and hope that some of them decided to do something with it; it’s just a shame they hadn’t been up to speed earlier. Writing on your Facebook page, or a blog like this unless you have a very wide readership, is useful in mobilising a small number of people, but largely it isn’t my Facebook friends or twitter followers that make the important political decisions. You need to tell MPs what you want and you have to tell media companies that you expect high quality factual reporting. When they balls it up let them know, and when they get it right let them know.

We are missing out on debate about the biggest decisions of our time, and everyone is gawping at fucking pies. I despair sometimes, I really do. Get on it people, or you will continue to get the media and debate you deserve.

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