The fourth estate has always had a bad name, but it seems to be getting worse. Journalism should be an honest and useful trade, and often still is. But now that journalism has more power than ever before, it seems to have become ever more disreputable. In recent years it has been brought lower and lower by kiss-and-tell betrayals, by “reality” TV, by shockumentaries and by liars, fantasists, hucksters and geeks of every kind, crowing and denouncing and emoting in a hideous new version of Bunyan’s Vanity Fair.
Outstanding among these is Michael Moore, the American documentary maker. He specialises in searing indictments, such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, and has, without a doubt, a genius for it. Although his films are crude, manipulative and one-sided, he is idolised by millions of Americans and Europeans, widely seen as some sort of redneck Mr Valiant-for-truth.
Nothing could be further from the truth. His latest documentary, Sicko, was released in cinemas last week. Millions of people will see it and all too many of them will be misled.
Sicko, like all Moore’s films, is about an important and emotive subject – healthcare. He contrasts the harsh and exclusive system in the US with the European ideal of universal socialised medicine, equal and free for all, and tries to demonstrate that one is wrong and the other is right. So far, so good; there are cases to be made.
Unfortunately Sicko is a dishonest film. That is not only my opinion. It is the opinion of Professor Lord Robert Winston, the consultant and advocate of the NHS. When asked on BBC Radio 4 whether he recognised the NHS as portrayed in this film, Winston replied: “No, I didn’t. Most of it was filmed at my hospital [the Hammersmith in west London], which is a very good hospital but doesn’t represent what the NHS is like.”
I didn’t recognise it either, from years of visiting NHS hospitals. Moore painted a rose-tinted vision of spotless wards, impeccable treatment, happy patients who laugh away any suggestion of waiting in casualty, and a glamorous young GP who combines his devotion to his patients with a salary of £100,000, a house worth £1m and two cars. All this, and for free.
This, along with an even rosier portrait of the French welfare system, is what Moore says the state can and should provide. You would never guess from Sicko that the NHS is in deep trouble, mired in scandal and incompetence, despite the injection of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.
While there are good doctors and nurses and treatments in the NHS, there is so much that is inadequate or bad that it is dishonest to represent it as the envy of the world and a perfect blueprint for national healthcare. It isn’t.
GPs’ salaries – used by Moore as evidence that a state-run system does not necessarily mean low wages – is highly controversial; their huge pay rise has coincided with a loss of home visits, a serious problem in getting GP appointments and continuing very low pay for nurses and cleaners.
At least 20 NHS trusts have even worse problems with the hospital-acquired infection clostridium difficile, not least the trust in Kent where 90 people died of C diff in a scandal reported recently.
Many hospitals are in crisis. Money shortages, bad management, excesses of bureaucrats and deadly Whitehall micromanagement mean they have to skimp on what matters most.
Overfilling the beds is dangerous to patients, in hygiene and in recovery times, but it goes on widely. Millions are wasted on expensive agency nurses because NHS nurses are abandoning the profession in droves. Only days ago, the 2007 nurse of the year publicly resigned in despair at the health service. There is a dangerous shortage of midwives since so many have left, and giving birth on the NHS can be a shocking experience.
Meanwhile thousands of young hospital doctors, under a daft new employment scheme, were sent randomly around the country, pretty much regardless of their qualifications or wishes. As foreign doctors are recruited from Third World countries, hundreds of the best-qualified British doctors have been left unemployed. Several have emigrated.
As for consultants, the men in Whitehall didn’t believe what they said about the hours they worked, beyond their duties, and issued new contracts forcing them to work less. You could hardly make it up.
None of these problems mean we should abandon the idea of a universal shared system of healthcare. It’s clear we would not want the American model, even if it isn’t quite as bad as portrayed by Moore. It’s clear our British private medical insurance provision is a rip-off. I believe we should as a society share burdens of ill health and its treatment. The only question is how best to do that and it seems to me the state-run, micromanaged NHS has failed to answer it.
By ignoring these problems, and similar ones in France’s even more generous and expensive health service, Moore is lying about the answer to that question. I wonder whether the grotesquely fat film-maker is aware of the delicious irony that in our state-run system, the government and the NHS have been having serious public discussion about the necessity of refusing to treat people who are extremely obese.
One can only wonder why Sicko is so dishonestly biased. It must be partly down to Moore’s personal vainglory; he has cast himself as a high priest of righteous indignation, the people’s prophet, and he has an almost religious following. He’s a sort of docu-evangelist, dressed like a parody of the American man of the people, with jutting jaw, infantile questions and aggressively aligned baseball cap.
However, behind the pleasures of righteous indignation for him and his audience, there is something more sinister. There’s money in indignation, big money. It is just one of the many extreme sensations that are lucrative for journalists to whip up, along with prurience, disgust and envy. Michael Moore is not Mr Valiant-for-truth. He is Mr Worldly-wiseman, laughing behind his hand at all the gawping suckers in Vanity Fair. Don’t go to his show.