The Department of Health is a large organisation, with different departments performing different tasks. No doubt, there are some departments carrying out noble and important work, and many of the civil servants working at the DH are, I am sure, dedicated to trying to make a positive difference to the provision of healthcare in the UK (or is it just England now?).
But there are some departments, the ones handling the more politicised policies, that are having to plan, promote, and implement policies that are not actually positive ones, and where there are significant unintended consequences. During the debate surrounding the Health and Social Care Bill many criticisms and misgivings were articulated. The Department of Health was then having to defend these policies and the methodology by which they were being planned, and this was most evident in the statements issued to journalists in response to the critiques.
‘A spokesman for the Department of Health said, ………’; ‘a spokeswoman for the Department of Health resplied…..’. These statements were understandably designed to minimise the damage done by the critique of the moment, but it meant that they were often fatuous and disingenuous. And what was frustrating from the point of view of those of us who work within the health economy was the, for the most part, the journalists just accepted these statements at face value, even if they contained falsehoods.
An example of this was when, in February 2012, 154 senior paediatricians (including 19 professors) wrote a letter to the Lancet to voice their concerns about the damage that would be done by the Bill. This naturally received attention in the press.
The Department of Health’s response, as quoted in this article:
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: “We have listened and substantially strengthened the Bill following the listening exercise. It’s not true to say that the Health and Social Care Bill will fragment children’s healthcare. In fact, the Bill will help address the very concerns about fragmentation that the experts raise. It will help the NHS and other public services work together better for children, young people and their families. These 150 individuals represent just over 1% of the total members of the Royal College of Paediatricians and Children’s Health and cannot be taken as an accurate representation of the College, who we continue to work with.”
The template for these responses is seems to be something like this:
a) make a positive-sounding statement (‘we have listened and substantially strengthened the Bill’); b) refute the criticism (without responding to the substance of the criticism); c) make some positive-sounding noises about the policy (the Bill ‘will help the NHS and other public services…’; and, sometimes, d) undermine the credibility of those voicing the concerns (as in this case).
What struck me about this example at the time (and why I kept the links) was that some anonymous spokeswoman at the Department of Health (who almost certainly had no experience working in paediatrics or medicine and was in all likelihood a PR person) was implicitly afforded equal status in this debate. So we had some paediatricians saying one thing, countered by the (unsubstantiated) assertions of a ‘spokeswoman’ without any qualitifications. Paediatricians 1, Department of Health 1.
What we need is a basic analysis of these communications from the Department of Health, a deconstruction. And where the DH statements are dishonest, disingenuous, misleading, and just meaningless spin, they should be named and ‘outed’ in an efficient way.
For the moment, I am going to use the term ‘MOOspeak’, but I would be happy for any suggestions for a better term. Remember, it needs to be short so able to be used on Twitter.
I would suggest that if a journalist feels the the statement they receive qualifies as MOOspeak, that they write something like:
A spokeswoman from the the Department of Health, issued this MOOspeak statement: ‘Blah blah, etc…’
Or: A MOOspokesman for the Department of Health said, ‘Blah blah….’
Or: In a statement from the Department of Health, which sounded awfully like MOOspeak, …..
I think they would issue fewer MOOspeak statements and we would have a more honest discussion.
And then, perhaps, we could move on to politicians and their ‘speak’….