Few political acts have exposed the sham of British ‘democracy’ like the decision to dismantle the National Health Service. In essence, the issues are simple:
1. The longstanding obligation of the UK government to provide universal health care has now been ditched.
2. The NHS is being carved open for exploitation by private interests.
The media, notably the BBC – often ranked alongside the NHS as one of the country’s greatest institutions – have failed to report this corporate assault on the country’s health service.
What is deeply disturbing is how little the British public has been told about what has happened, and about the likely consequences for an institution we all hold dear.
Much Profit To Be Made!
On March 20, 2012, MPs passed the Health and Social Care Bill (commonly called ‘the NHS bill’) more than 14 months after it was first put before Parliament. Virtually every major professional medical body had fought against it, and there were numerous public protests. But the opposition was given scant media coverage and the government was able to force the bill through.
Recall that the Conservatives, led by David Cameron, won just 36% of the vote in the 2010 general election. Outrageously, the Conservative manifesto said nothing about the NHS bill. The former Conservative minister and leading political pundit Michael Portillo explained the reasoning:
‘They did not believe they could win an election if they told you what they were going to do because people are so wedded to the NHS.’
Cameron had pledged that there would be: ‘No more pointless and disruptive reorganisations’. Instead, he said change would be: ‘Driven by the wishes and needs of NHS professionals and patients.’ The coalition agreement between the Tories and the Lib Dems of May 2010 had promised: ‘We will stop the top-down reorganisation of the NHS.’ That promise has been well and truly smashed.
The government tried to justify the bill by arguing that the NHS is not working and that it must be ‘reformed’. In fact, the NHS is one of the fairest, most cost-effective and efficient healthcare systems in the world. Its per capita costs are half that of the US healthcare system, a country which has lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality (OECD figures). One can only look on in horror across the Atlantic to see the way our health service is headed.
Michael Moore, writer and director of Sicko, a film about the US health system, tweeted of Cameron’s recent visit to the United States:
‘Is British PM Cameron here in USA this week to study our health care system & bring it back to the UK? There’s much profit to be made!’
‘Last nite, Brit PM watched 1st ever basketball game. Today he goes to hospital 2 watch sick ppl turned away & denied care. It’s a fun trip!’
The NHS bill was hideously complicated and virtually unreadable. Critics claimed this was intentional, serving to hide the bill’s true purpose – selling off more and more of the NHS to private companies. The British Medical Association denounced the bill as ‘complex, incoherent and not fit for purpose, and almost impossible to implement successfully, given widespread opposition across the NHS workforce’.
In a rare instance of BBC Question Time actually putting a senior politician on the spot about something that matters, Dr Phil Hammond challenged Andrew Lansley, Secretary of State for Health, on the disaster the bill would create for genuine health care, for cooperation between medical professionals and for basic human compassion. Imagine if news editors and journalists had been consistently making this kind of challenge in the 14 months before the bill became law.
Along with the NHS, the BBC is supposed to epitomise the best of British institutions. The BBC has a duty, enshrined in its Charter, to report objectively on stories of national and international interest. The NHS affects every man, woman and child in the country. And yet we suspect very few members of the public realise what has just happened to their health care system.
The BBC mostly failed to cover the story, and otherwise offered coverage heavily biased in favour of the government’s perspective. On the very day the bill passed into law, the tag line across the bottom of BBC news broadcasts said ‘Bill which gives power to GPs passes’. The assessment could have come from a government press release, spin that has been rejected by an overwhelming majority of GPs. The BBC has also repeatedly failed to cover public protests, including one outside the Department of Health which stopped the traffic in Whitehall for an hour.
It is nigh-on impossible for Media Lens, with our meagre resources, to closely monitor the prodigious output of BBC television and radio news; even on a single topic. But one activist who has been following the NHS story closely over an extended period sent us this last month:
‘For the past two years there has been so little coverage of this bill that even as some were desperately fighting to stop it – through e-petitions, lobbying campaigns and even demonstrations – many people did not appear to be even aware of it. I have been on a demonstration in which people sat down in the road in Whitehall, outside the Department of Health and blocked the traffic, yet this was not mentioned at all on the news.
‘When the BBC have reported on the bill they have been sparse with their explanations of its implications or the reasons why so many – including most medical professionals – have objected to it. They have tended to limit their comments to those of the type “Some people say it’s privatisation” without explaining why or exploring the issue.
‘There have not been – as we might have expected for so momentous a change – debates on the Today Programme, on BBC Newsnight, or blackground analysis programmes, with politicians being challenged and questioned on the policy. Radio 4 ran a programme at 8pm [The Report, on March 22, 2012] which appeared to be very biased in favour of the bill, with opposing views not adequately represented. Contrast this programme with this article by Hackney Keep Our NHS Public (KONP)
‘Whatever one’s views on the Health and Social Care bill, surely such large scale changes which may affect the health of so many, should have been widely reported and debated, especially when you consider that the coalition government was not elected and did not put this issue in their manifestos.’ (Email, name withheld, March 23, 2012)
Why did we never see a BBC television news report like this one from RT: ‘UK govt bill opens up NHS to private profiteering’?