Junior Doctors have been on strike today, for the first time in over 40 years. 1975 was the last time that they urged for a strike to stop the government arbitrarily changing pay and conditions for economic reasons. Not many people (certainly in my generation) would consider junior doctors (or any professionals) to be left-wing strike-happy firebrands and with good reasons. When this is why they are striking http://doctors.strikingly.com/ it makes reading some of the headlines and lead articles in the tory press truly amazing. Quite amazingly, the BBC seem to be falling for the same act that Jeremy Hunt has been playing his entire career.
It is really amazing that the BBC are still not caught up with this one. However, you have to ask whether the BBC are really focussed on reporting the news correctly at the moment. With Laura Kuenssberg and the Daily Politics show openly admitting to arranging a Labour resignation live on air in order to embarrass Labour – with the PM amazingly aware of it AS IT HAPPENED, you have to wonder how partisan the BBC is. Certainly a lot more than it was.
The playbook the conservatives and Jeremy Hunt MP are using is remarkably well worn. There are a number of steps and stages to it. In fact, it was really honed in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher and Lord Bell. So why is it so successful today? Probably because it is so simple and also quite hard to refute at any individual point in the process.
1. Set the press agenda.
This means controlling the topics of conversation and the tone of conversation from the outset. Really, you need to have the press in your hand to be able to do this. So for example, having the vast majority of print media owned by Tory supporting families helps. You might for example think that this is a case of politicians and medical experts disagreeing about what safe patient care looks like and how to deliver it? If so, you might be tempted to land on the side of the medical experts? But if the only headlines you see are:
Hospitals braced to order striking junior doctors back to work as trusts struggle without staff (Daily telegraph)
14 minutes ago
Junior Doctors told to GO BACK to work as hospitals buckle amid first strike in 40 years(The Express)
Well, that might, just might give you a different view of the whole situation. One where Junior Doctors are actually striking for the sake of striking. None of those headlines identify WHY the strike is happening – because that is what Junior Doctors want to talk about. That is their agenda. So no matter what, it needs to be kept out of headlines and articles. In order to do this during the miners strike as another example, Margaret Thatcher moved Tim Bell (who had been her most trusted media advisor) to the National Coal Board to tell them how to do this. It also plays into the second part of the strategy, which is:
2. Villify your opponents
It is really important that you are seen as the reasonable side in the conversation – and that the other side can be painted with some base allegations. The lower and meaner the better. So for example, http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/6850988/Luxury-lifestyles-of-junior-doctor-strike-leaders.html was a great smear campaign. It allowed the press to identify completely unrelated items and link them back to the story. Now remember, this is a story about junior doctors worrying about patient safety. So instead, if you can link it to their greed and avarice, then you can turn the public against them.
Again, the Tories and the right wing press have fantastic form for this in the past. Who can ever forget or forgive The Sun when the tory government of the day needed to blame somebody other than the Police for the Hillsbrough disaster? Exactly the same script – make the people on the other side of the argument seem base and less than human.
3. Never be wrong, admit nothing, ever
Again, this can only be done if you have a friendly press, which luckily for the Tories they do. I will give you an example of what that means in the current issue. If you search for the latest news stories, they all cover (for variation) that Jeremy Hunt wants to talk to the BMA, and that they are refusing to be involved in talks.
The truth is that in November of last year the BMA asked Jeremy Hunt, through NHS England and the Department of Health back to the negotiating table at ACAS. It took 3 weeks for him to agree – and only once there was sufficient political intelligence to say that not talking was making the government look bad. Just think about that for a second. His only reason for going back was because of pollsters and social media. He has now turned that round – and claimed that it is the BMA who are not talking. He also ignores the fact that the negotiations at ACAS are ongoing.
4. There are lies, damn lies and statistics
And nobody can call you out on them in an interview. But numbers sound incredibly convincing to a public who don’t have facts and figures to hand. A good example would again be from the Hunt’s interview with the BBC today. He openly stated that
“and at the moment we have an NHS where if you have a stroke at the weekends, you're 20% more likely to die. That can't be acceptable.”
Wow. Who could argue with that? Well, apart from the fact that it is not ENTIRELY accurate. I don’t even know where he got his statistics from, but it is really easy to refute. For example -http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11043707/Stroke-patients-are-more-likely-to-die-if-fewer-nurses-at-weekends.html clearly tells us that the thing that makes you 35% more likely to die is that the NHS doesn’t fund enough nurses. Or http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101101161816.htm says that we can’t attribute it to a lack of junior doctors. But the assertion is out there – and people will remember a statistic. For many, they won’t even try – much easier to just accept. After all, would a government minister tell an outright lie? By the time it is found out it is too late because the other side have been demoralised by
5. Cut off their support / divide and rule
Firstly by the steps above, but also ensuring that the media report how little support they have. The trick is to make your opponents feel ostracised and alone. It is the same trick that school bullies use – make sure the weak kid feels like they have no friends. Hence, NHS England and the DH trumpeting that 39% of junior doctors went to work today. Again, the Hunt has touted this as
“I'd like to thank the junior doctors who ignored the BMA national advice and did go back to work. And I think that shows the values of the vast majority of junior doctors. “
That is – “the normal ones worked, you are the outliers, you are the lonely few”. What it actually shows is that some junior doctors are not in the BMA, and that other junior doctors are delivering emergency care – ie being reasonable and putting patients first.
So, how can we beat them?
This is a tried and tested method that has been used over and over again – Miners strike, Hillsborough, Firefighters, Police and now Junior Doctors. But we have a real opportunity now to stop them – and to win this fight. We now have the tools to counter act their ownership of the media through the use of social media. Do a search for #juniordoctorsstrike right now and see how much support is still there. We can refute spurious claims instantly by reference to the internet and point out their lies quickly. They can no longer lock us into our homes with newspapers and stop us supporting each other. We know what their playbook is going to be. It is the same every time.
But we need to be disciplined, and we need to be calm. Whilst social media, the internet and our ever increasing connectedness allows us a chance to fight, we must show restraint and not go barging in, and being shown as “thugs”. Ask the cybernats how that worked out for them. We need to be balanced, stay on message and understand what we are fighting against. That requires not only co-ordination, but calm heads. I hope this is the first time we can use them, and that it can become our playbook.