Friday, June 22, 2012

What's gone wrong with doctors' pension campaign

We headed the last posting here  "let's hear from doctors". On Twitter using the #BMAaction hashtag, you could indeed hear from a number of doctors.

Protesting doctor stays anonymous at the
Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham
But if you toured Britain's hospitals yesterday - as we did - you would have been disappointed, as we were. This was, after all, doctors' first industrial action for nearly 40 years and yet it was nearly invisible. At four major hospitals we found one doctor only declaring backing for the action, wearing the arm-band depicted. That does not mean we do not think most doctors are angry about their pensions - it means that doctors were not organised to express their anger in a meaningful way.


Some doctors have responded that picket lines were not appropriate - as there was no "strike". Well British Medical Association members voted for a strike and the BMA stated that some doctors might be asked to withdraw their labour. Guess what? If the BMA ever changed that strategy, it failed to communicate it.

And there lies the deeper malaise. The communication around the day of action - which was about pensions - was dreadful. And for doctors that's compounded a tough situation. It was the worst of issues for doctors to seek to stand their ground and fight. Some had recognised this - urging the union to concentrate its fire on the government's unpopular NHS reforms.

Instead doctors walked into the political trap set for them. Think about it - instead of fighting for patients they were fighting for their own livelihoods and for pensions which the average man could not even dream of. And not only were they not fighting for patients, they took action which actively denied patients treatment.

As yesterday progressed, the trap closed ever tighter on the BMA, once the organisation representing Britain's most trusted profession. As the government appeared to breathe a sigh of relief that not too many patients were affected, the BMA was left desperately claiming that more patients were affected than the government said. So much for minimising disruption to patients.

So what about the communication and the picket lines? Last week we contacted the BMA expressing concern that we did not appear to be getting many press releases or briefings about the proposed action. Statements were appearing on the BMA web-site - but were not being circulated in the usual way.

At the time we thought it was a technical issue. The BMA had brought in an external agency to distribute it's press releases. It had also shut down its media web-pages for some bizarre reason. These previously allowed us to check what we had received. Now, for all I know, we could be placed on some kind of C-list of "do not send".

By Wednesday morning we had maybe received two press releases over the two weeks running up to this "historic" day of action, both of them statements from BMA chairman Hamish Meldrum.


At about mid-day on Wednesday I emailed the BMA press office asking about picket lines and other events. No reply was received. Clearly we are minor players in their scheme of things. But not only was an individual reply not received, at no point was a briefing circulated to the media setting out plans for the day , how it would work and when press conferences would be held - together with contacts. Maybe we would have been deterred from touring hospitals if we had received that briefing.

As the day progressed, the BMA had to deploy its key activists onto the BBC, whose reporters were clearly, like us, unable to find ordinary doctors. Where were the ordinary doctors? Apparently inside the hospitals trying not to do non-urgent work.

It would not have been just us. Hundreds of local papers and radio stations would have been disappointed. Stories would be based on BMA spokespeople and NHS spokespeople only. Local papers and local TV stations were left without photos or film.

Now it may be the BMA's in-house team was not up to the task of running a major industrial action. Does it not have the reserves to employ outside help?

So, you BMA activists, picket lines are not just about stopping people from strike-breaking. They provide a presence on the ground - especially when you are losing the "air war". And the beauty of staging industrial action is that it allows you to establish picket lines. All you need is a few banners and leaflets. Interestingly my local evening paper today carries not a line about the action. It does however have a photo of a Unison picket line at a local hospital.

More importantly it has been evident for some time that the BMA media strategy has lost its way. When I worked on local papers we had a local press contact on the BMA. We are a new media news organisation. Where is the new media contact?

Worse still, it seems the BMA strategy for the new media is the utterly mistaken one of trying to compete with us - not work with us. Its output of general press releases - aimed not just at the new media but the trade press and the local press - is now frankly pathetic. Instead now its news is funneled straight into its trade paper, the BMA News and onto its own web-site.

Now we may not have a mass media following. But we do write for the mass of doctors who use Doctors.net.uk. Not only do they deserve to know what their major union is doing, the BMA itself ought to be using this medium to communicate with doctors - maybe giving itself a chance to win over the many doctors who are not its members.

So where now for the BMA? It holds its annual conference next week. Expect blood on the carpets. In spite of the bravado, doctors cannot be satisfied with the organisation of yesterday's day of action.

If the BMA wants to take on the government, it needs to find better strategies - otherwise it will go the way of Arthur Scargill's National Union of Miners in the 1980s. What about action that has no impact at all on treatment of patients - but maximum impact on the government and on public perception?

And that would be a shame because for generations the BMA has indeed provided a voice for the ordinary doctor.

4 comments:

  1. Hi, I think I was one of your contacts in the local press about 100 years ago, and guess what, I'm still here as a BMA local press rep. Your successors on the paper were never as interested in health as you! However local radio are and I was on the phone or in the studio all day on Thursday as were others around the region.

    BMA info was that doctors wanted industrial action short of a strike but lawyers said almost anything is legally classed as a strike. A walk-out with flags and pickets was never intended. We expected worse negative press reaction and were not courting it. Interesting local broadcast media were more supportive. Someone told me they had pension change last year....
    See you next time around?
    Birmingham doc

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  2. Hi. I do not think you could have had worse press reaction. That's the problem.
    Editor

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