When it comes to the NHS, the Today programme has one aim – to suspend disbelief.
The gap between myth and reality demonstrated by yesterday’s shameless and toe-curlingly saccharine celebration had to be heard to be believed. Even before the Gosport hospital scandal – or the question of quite how widespread over-enthusiastic diamorphine prescribing may be – the cracks in our chronic ill-health dependency system weren’t exactly invisible. Today’s sentimentalised high-tech vision produced to mark its 70th birthday however was heroic to put it mildly.
Those who Justin Webb’s reverential tones had reaching for the sick bag will have missed the symphonic finale to the sanitised feel-good repast the programme fed us. It was a veritable symphony of praise to the NHS. A symphony is exactly what BBC Radio Three commissioned in its name and with our money. Leftie lunacy maybe, but that’s how your licence fee has been spent, in a salute to its ‘everyday sounds’.
Among the uplifting NHS ‘sounds’ chosen to symbolise the life-affirming NHS was ‘a doctor listening to the beating heart of an unborn baby’. That is what the NHS is about. Saving and delivering life, forgetting of course the 200,000 unborn baby heartbeats it stops every year – about 20 per cent of all pregnancies.
The symphonic universe of Today’s NHS must feature no disharmony; none of those whistles blown from Gosport hospital or any of the succession of previous scandals which showed the carelessness, brutality, compliance and silence that are part of NHS reality. The Today editor was going to let any such jarring chords spoil its day’s outing to the cutting-edge high tech Royal Bournemouth Hospital to which Justin Webb was sent to provide the myth needed to keep the NHS monster fed.
The inconvenient Gosport scandal was deftly dealt with by interviewing the NHS’s brand new ‘Freedom to Speak Up Guardian’. Heard of her? No, me neither. Whoever had that brainwave must be up for promotion. And hadn’t she been trained in virtuous but say-nothing newspeak? Not that Justin pressed her very hard. He just let her assure us that with her and her bevy of mini ‘Freedom to Speak Up Guardians’ whose job it is to listen to whistleblowers up and down the country and make them feel safe, and we could all relax. Provided of course that our Freedom Guardian secured that ‘long-term sufficient funding’ she was about to demand of Jeremy Hunt to keep her in business. Which just about sums up the bureaucratised, target-ticking NHS for you.
Just imagine, though, that Gosport was a private hospital. Would Justin have fallen for such PC tosh? Would Today have allowed itself to be diverted from a scandal by a 70th anniversary?
Of course not, because there’d be no socialist myth in need of protection and sustenance, but a corrupt capitalist to expose.
I don’t know what the rest of the BBC’s plans are for the big NHS birthday party. But I am not holding my breath on a critical review of the long list of NHS scandals or what, if anything, the succession of inquiries that followed have changed.
Nor am I expecting they’re going to be challenging the NHS’s insatiable appetite for our taxpayer billions, the fundamental funding reform needed, or indeed whether the NHS should exist at all.
Still less do I expect the happy proceedings to be marred by hard questions about doctors’ commitment to the NHS or whether their self-interest is sustainable, as evidenced in their four-day weeks and the massive attrition rate, which has four in ten GPs quitting within five years of finishing their training, though their training is estimated to cost the exchequer £500,000 apiece.
Nor do I expect they’ll even raise an eyebrow at the number of doctors putting up two fingers to public service by switching to short-term locum work with much higher pay and better hours, practising abroad or leaving the profession entirely, despite the fact this is why Sajid Javid is having to relax visa rules to allow more foreign doctors into Britain.
Will the BBC be addressing any of these difficult questions? Or would that be to defile the quasi-religious status and image of their mythical NHS? I guess we should just be grateful not to have compulsory street parties thrust on us.
That in essence is exactly what Today delivered yesterday – a street party sequel to Danny Boyle’s Olympics propaganda coup. A new rendition of his emancipation myth of Britain’s national identity, of which the NHS was the ‘very proud and strong, beating, socialist heart’. It still is, according to the director of The Greatest Wealth whom Justin interviewed towards the end of the programme. The sentimental excerpts from monologues on the history of the NHS to which we were treated can be experienced in their full glory at the Old Vic, if you have the stomach for it.
I say sequel, because bed-bouncing gave way to high tech. Or that seemed to be the idea. Tech, the message was, would save the NHS from those nasty folk who deny it funding. The noble NHS beast is a transformative one. In its struggles on our behalf against the vicissitudes of government funding it’s finding the solutions that will make it more efficient, and avoid any people contact to boot. Who better to test this on than the demented? Tagged with a buzzing ‘tracker’ in case they wander off, the problem of the weakest, sickest and frailest can be solved in a jiffy. That’s right. The people most in need of personal care and reassurance can be deprived of it. But then, like the patients subjected to ‘life-shortening’ at Gosport, humans are but a problem for efficiency to solve.
Yet morality apart, Justin also seemed surprisingly naive about the reality of the NHS’s relationship with even basic medical technology. ‘Slow’ and ‘behind’ are perhaps the more fitting adjectives.
Truth or lies – it makes no difference when it comes to conjuring up the brave new NHS world.
Seventy years on, surely it’s not fantasies but the cracks in the seams of the NHS the BBC should be addressing, however committed, diligent and caring many of its staff are. No one should be sanguine about a system which, for all the billions poured into it, has resulted in child health worse than when it was formed in 1948. How can anyone be sanguine when the very ethos on which socialised medicine depends has all but collapsed, leaving an insatiable monster accountable to no one?