Squalor and disease

REPORTING the NHS, and in particular the current "reforms" under the Health and Social Care Act, was the theme of February's London Freelance Branch meeting. Our first speaker was Alan Taman, a former Birmingham Children's Hospital PR and co-author of a forthcoming ebook aimed at journalists on health reporting and health PR - First Do No Harm. Alan is also NUJ Birmingham Branch Vice-Chair. He was joined by NHS nurse Gay Lee, "straight off a shift", an active member of the nurse's union the Royal College of Nursing and a campaigner on health issues who also writes on the NHS.

Alan's co-author on First Do No Harm Dr John Lister, was also booked to speak at the LFB meeting, but was unable, ironically due to his unexpected encounter with the NHS after he needed emergency dental surgery. In John's apology, read by Alan, he said "getting regular, timely information from the Department of Health" was "uncannily like getting a tooth pulled."

Alan Taman; © Hazel Dunlop

Alan Taman

There is, says Alan, a "massive gap in knowledge" among most journalists on healthcare issues. All journalists are under increasing pressure to "do health", with little or no training, and a small number of specialists are "under pressure to do more work on it". Journalists, advises Alan, "need to ask how PR in the NHS is managed, defined and operated... I fear no one else will. "

When he was senior PR for Birmingham Children's Hospital, Alan saw "a raft of ethical issues... individual triumphs and tragedies and major disasters".

Even in a hospital that "managed to save over 98 per cent of children in intensive care, one or two a week are going to die" so Alan faced "the equivalent of the reporters' death knock, asking parents 'do you mind if we tell the press how your child is faring?' " The job should entail "acting ethically, being professional and telling truth to power when power doesn't want to hear": it "takes courage."

We're rapidly seeing the emergence of an "ideology that opposes what the NHS stands for" believes Alan. There are now "organisations that... may place corporate profits" before ethics. There is, says Alan, "so much doubt about the new structure" in the NHS. "I'm not saying unprincipled privateer spin will emerge, but I do fear it could, to the detriment of PRs and everyone else.

Gay Lee told the meeting "We have to see what is happening to the NHS as completely different from the old NHS founded in 1948 - following the Beveridge Report identifying the "five giant evils" of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.

Gay Lee; © Hazel Dunlop

Gay Lee

The tragedy is that most people, including health journalists, don't understand what is happening... Health is now a business, an economic activity, it's not a service. The whole business ethos is being flipped into its culture." The NHS is worth £100 billion a year to "global big business," they "love the NHS because they can see it as a resource they can capture."

Then there's TTIP - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, now being negotiated between the EU and the US, which will mean "businesses being able to get their hands on" services like the NHS. Gay singled out the BBC for being "extremely biased against" any "alternative ideological view" to the Government's take on the NHS - with the exception of File on 4's investigation into the NHS and the private sector.

Says Gay, "You very rarely get Today interviews with [pro-NHS] campaigners... Surprisingly, the Daily Mail has been quite a good friend" on NHS reporting, "the Sun never, the Telegraph and Guardian... are occasionally faithful".

Gay observed that the Francis Report on the Mid-Staffs affair and the subsequent pointed to a hospital "desperately trying to save money to become a foundation trust, putting quality care second." Following this, says Gay, health workers have been "supressed": she gave the example of an occupational therapist dismissed from a London hospital trust for speaking out, "who's not allowed to talk about it... The Government and its cronies do not want us to discuss these issues, and we have a problem making these complex issues, full percentages, confidence intervals and sample sizes, media-friendly."

  • Alan Taman is involved in organising a conference, "First, Do No Harm - why freelances make a difference, and need to": it's in Coventry on 14-16 May and the fee for freelances is £60 for 3 days. See here.
  • SpinWatch is said to be running training soon on how to understand PFI contracts and the like: watch this space for details.
Last modified: 13 Apr 2014 - © 2014 contributors
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