Pic: Natalie Slade, NZ HeraldThis morning’s Herald features a lengthy front-page story about the effect of a hospital workers’ strike on the parents of a 17-month old baby who was due to have surgery on Thursday. Seventeen-month-old Rebecca Jones has cerebral palsy and was to have two surgical procedures this Thursday to ease constant pain and sickness, and help her take solid food. Parents Cara Porter-Jones and Gary Jones had been preparing for the operation for months after being given the go-ahead in March, and have taken leave from work. But Mrs Porter-Jones says that with just days to go, she received a phonecall saying her daughter’s surgery had been cancelled because of strikes at Auckland City Hospital. “I broke down in tears. I was devastated,” she said. “To put it nicely, I’m very, very, very angry. We’ve been preparing ourselves for this for weeks. Now that we were getting so close to it – naturally we’re very scared – and to be told that it’s been cancelled because people are fighting over money” Now the family are in limbo, as they wait for another date to be set.
I can entirely understand Mrs Porter-Jones’ anger. If surgery for a suffering child or grandchild of mine had been postponed in this manner, I would be looking for someone’s blood. This is also a very good story for a tabloid newspaper. What makes it good is that it can be cast in simple terms of good and evil: good loving parents and evil striking workers. And in the middle an ailing child. The Herald’s headlines and subhead cast it in exactly those terms: HEALTH SERVICE WALKOUTS HIT FAMILY. Strikers’ helpless victims. Hospital workers want more money… baby Rebecca wants surgery that will change her life. This is the traditional way in which the media present industrial disputes involving workers in essential occupations: good versus evil; long suffering public versus selfish workers ‘holding the employer/country to ransom’.
The language of these stories reflects this conflict of ideologies. The fate of those affected by the strike is couched in highly emotive terms; the strikers’ arguments presented in the coldest, hardest language. Look at the headlines and subhead of the Herald’s story again: Health Service Walkouts Hit Family Strikers’ helpless victims Hospital workers want more money… baby Rebecca wants surgery that will change her life. Editors understand this very well of course. At the bottom of the story about little Rebecca – to whom all our hearts must go out – the paper invites readers to TELL US YOUR STORY –` I’m not so naive as to think that it’s stories from the hospital workers they want to hear. This is almost certainly the start of a campaign against them. What’s wrong with this sort of reporting is that it gives us little or no opportunity to judge the rights and wrongs of the radiographers’ and medical laboratory workers’ case.
We learn almost nothing about that in the story. It probably isn’t necessary, because the intention of the Herald’s report is not to inform but to appeal to prejudice, the prejudice inherent in the concept of ‘holding the public/country to ransom’. But the fact of the matter is that people who work in essential occupations have great difficulty withdrawing their labour, however just their cause may be. Bus drivers, for example, are badly paid and their working conditions are poor. But if they strike for better pay or conditions, everyone hates them. They are ‘holding the travelling public to ransom.’ The fact is that, precisely because they work in an essential occupation, they themselves are held to ransom by the widespread disapproval of the public. The employer of people in any essential occupation is in fact in a stronger position than other employers. He has the gun of public odium to hold to his workers’ heads.
It is of course extremely unfortunate that patients are suffering and will continue to suffer as a result of strike action by hospital workers. Those patients and their families cannot be expected to stand back and take a dispassionate look at the reasons for the strike action. They are entitled to be upset and angry. But the media have an obligation to go beyond the simplistic allocation of blame and to provide their readers, listeners, viewers with an even-handed analysis of the workers’ claims which will allow them to make an informed judgement of the rights and wrongs of the workers’ case. There are three parties in this case: the hospital workers, their direct employers (the DHBs) and their indirect employers (the government). Should the question not at least be asked: what blame, or proportion of blame, for the suffering of the patients can be directed to the employers?