Media Matter Nick Thomas
What, I have been wondering, should we make of Monday's Times front page lead, which broke the astonishing news that entry into the euro will mean the end of the NHS? The most surprising thing was that the old Thunderer seemed to have scooped the Telegraph, which, one would have thought, would be first with any story that confirmed its belief in the evil of European integration. Surely the newshawks at Canary Wharf spend all their waking hours going through every memo, draft and doodle that issues from across the Channel, ever alert for evidence that the spirit of Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler is alive and well amongst the megalomaniacal, besuited anglophobes of the Continent?
For the story didn't look silly. The European Central Bank's monthly bulletin contained an article making it absolutely clear that state funding of anything but emergency operations would be intolerable within the eurozone, and, what with an unequivocal commitment to the NHS from Alan Milburn's spokesman, it looked as if we had finally been confronted with the insoluble impasse that would either keep us out of the euro or force the Labour Government to abandon its most cherished platform plank, undoubtedly resulting in an almost unanimous rebellion of the back benches, mass resignation from the top down, and an early General. Hot stuff.
On the other hand, while the Times was at pains to point out that the bulletin was not merely the thinking aloud of a bunch of researchers, but carried the ECB's imprimatur, it was still only an opinion, and the bank itself does not — yet — have the power to impose such radical policy changes, even on eurozone finance ministers, at least not overtly. And meanwhile, of course, Blair and co are desperately trying to get a first step to NHS reform through the Commons (the vote has yet to happen as 1 write), and the domestic, internal party battle over facing the realities also outlined in the bulletin are rather more important just now.
The impact of the piece was further undermined by the sidebar story on the same page, which told us that "scientists believe" it is possible to catch SARS from a table-top that has been cleaned only with conventional detergent. Well, yes, "possible" is the operative word. We all remember the surge in rubber glove sales when AIDS first started hitting the headlines 20 years ago. Howard Hughes, thou shouldst be living at this hour.
And yet, and yet. Surely nobody can doubt that the European engine is geared up to centralise more and more powers, to diminish the authority of member states' legislatures, to iron out, one by one, all the differences that exist in the ways in which we order these matters? We all know that the NHS only worked when its users behaved as though they still had to pay for the doctor, instead of demanding housecalls for the common cold, and that the combination of higher expectation and longer life expectancy demands a revolution in health care provision. To its credit, Blair's government is attempting to address that problem, as Thatcher's did in the past. But the prospect of policy being dictated from Europe is no mere phantom, and the Times was right to spin the ECB bulletin into a scare story. The Telegraph, in its bid to make itself more exciting and hold on, by hook or by crook, to its now disputed status as the number one broadsheet, seems to have deliberately ignored one of thousands of boring documents that come out of Brussels, Strasbourg and Frankfurt every year. But boredom is the principle weapon of this burgeoning bureaucratic dictatorship, in its quest to take over our lives without our noticing. The limes' spin into sensationalism was definitely the right way to go.