In the UK, in line with most other western democracies, there is an enormous fondness for legislating the hell out of anything and everything; making rules about how we behave or others behave towards us. Nowhere is this love of rule-making so adored as in the European Community (EU) where vast hordes of bureaucrats, like locusts in a grain field, populate Brussels in an orgy of legislation, proposed.legislation, pipe-dream legislation, pie-in-the-sky legislation; the world's pine forests are seriously under threat from this avalanche of paper which descends, unbidden and largely unread, from Brussels. The only job market which is expanding in the EU is for 'Compliance Officers', those charged with reading this guff and explaining clearly in words of one syllable to just about anybody what it all means and how you avoid running foul of the law.
Mocking the flood of legislation is easy; an April Fools prank by a newspaper a few years ago which reported that the EU was proposing legislation, to limit the curvature of bananas which could be sold, was widely considered not to be beyond the pale. However, whilst they may go over the top on occasion, the legislation is after all drafted by lawyers who, as a profession, are not renowned for either their brevity or their unwillingness to dot 'i's and cross 't's, the legislation does genuinely provide, in the main, genuine and much needed safeguards for the population as a whole. Employment legislation, protecting the rights of the downtrodden workforce; safety of medicines, it does what it says on the tin; the right to a fair trial, however much the media try to scuttle it; the protection of basic human rights, we, in the UK at least, do not have a formal, written constitution or Bill of Rights as in the US.
I was reminded of this by a casual perusal of the 'OfCom Bulletin' and a post I wrote earlier in the month about journalists (here). OfCom, OFCOM or Ofcom, ofcom,***** whatever, is an independent, quasi-government body which was established to regulate, inter alia, broadcasting, in its myriad of forms, and provide advice and adjudication on the various items of legislation which relate to broadcasting; it is similar to the Press Complaints Commission but scarcely has the same air of 'lap-dog subservience' that the employer-led PCC has. It is also has the responsibility of licensing companies providing such services; no licence, no broadcast!.
So what has got me mildly warm under the collar? A television documentary (in Channel 4's usually excellent 'Dispatches' programme) about the NHS and the effects of cuts in 2011, when the programme was broadcast. In common with all documentaries about the NHS over the last thirty years, it was somewhat critical of the health service in general and one Health Trust in particular. So far, all fine and dandy; one of the prime benefits of good journalism is that the population as a whole get to learn about things which they do not want you to know. A major feature of this documentary, which it shares with other programmes in the same series, is its use of undercover reporters and secret cameras which not only elicits information not readily available from 'official sources' but makes for good, impact-rich television.
The documentary made use of a number of secretly recorded conversations with staff, two nurses in particular. The reporters had been told prior to their investigation that they were not 'to lead' people, not ask 'leading questions', which from transcripts they seem not to have done; these 'interviews', for that in essence is what they were, took the form of 'idle gossip around the water cooler', It is a truism to suggest that employees, especially in such a demanding a job as nursing, do, on the whole, have certain 'issues' with their employer; everybody, no matter how good your employer, whinges from time to time.
These two nurses were not shy about voicing their opinions on what was wrong with the NHS, this Trust and especially the Accident and Emergency Department at that hospital; basically too many bureaucrats performing useless tasks in order to satisfy a Minister who was more concerned with numbers and cash then patient care. As anyone who is familiar with the NHS, this sort of criticism is almost universal among the medical and dental professionals and endemic in ancillary staff (porters, cleaners etc). So what is my beef?
They broadcast the show, it airs at 8.00pm and so has a high 'potential' audience, with all of verbal criticisms intact, although they tried to make the speakers anonymous by blurring the faces which is fairly pointless among people you know or work with every day. Good, you say; the general public has a right to know of staff concerns, the so-called 'public interest defence'. Only the two nurse in question were not asked whether, in the light of their ignorance of the purpose, they were happy for their comments to be broadcast. It surely begs the question; are journalists (and programme producers) so arrogant of their purpose that they cannot see that they might be putting the two nurses at risk from the very people they were critical of? However, it is very unlikely that the two would have agreed; the NHS can, at times, be a capricious employer!
In the event, both nurses were disciplined, both nurses with suspension and one with a 'written warning' and one with dismissal. Anyone who has undergone 'disciplinary action' or the threat of it knows that, even in a trade unionised environment providing support, advice and representation, it is a traumatic situation. To put those nurses through that without even asking for consent, well words fail me!
This tale has a sort of happy ending. The nurse who was merely warned subsequently left of her own accord; I can well imagine why. The nurse who was dismissed subsequently won her case for 'unfair dismissal' and got her job back, although I am unable to find out whether she is still at the same hospital; doubtful I would have thought. And OfCom?
"Therefore, on balance, and given all the factors referred to above, Ofcom concluded that the broadcaster’s right to freedom of expression and the audience’s right to receive information and ideas without interference, in the circumstances of this particular case, did not outweigh the legitimate expectation of privacy that Mrs Millington had in relation to the surreptitiously filmed footage of her broadcast in the programme without her consent. Ofcom concluded that there had been an unwarranted infringement of Mrs Millington’s privacy in the broadcast of the programme."
The full text of the adjudication is here. It starts on page 61 of the downloadable pdf.
* Yes, that John Paul Jones; he of Led Zeppelin fame. He sure looked like he was having a lot of fun.
** And who managed to get thousands of people to chant in unison, "Out, Demons, Out!" In deference to the Fugs, from whom the EBB stole the song, few people in the UK had heard of the Fugs let alone heard them. The 'demons' were the occupants of the Pentagon and the White House; this was the height of the Vietnam war..
*** From an old Morris Minor, one of the few cars you could buy in 1950's Britain. Here's what the cash conscious motorist was driving back in the days of austerity:
And here's the racy convertible; 0-60mph in about 2 minutes. I once saw a black one at a local park's weekly 'classic car drive thru' which was decorated with US style 'hot-rod' 'flames' all along the sides.
**** Although the best song title in history must go to Charlie Mingus' "The shoes of the fisherman's wife are some jiveass slippers".
**** In the wake of the deregulation (de-nationalisation) which was so much a feature of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister, the Brits embarked on a wave of 'Of's, ('Office of'); Ofcom (the communications industry including broadcasting and the phone companies); Ofwat (the water supply and treatment industry); Ofgem (the gas and electricity industry including the National Grid) although in Northern Ireland, in deference to their Irishness, they have a separate body called Ofreg, Office for the Regulation of Electricity & Gas. By the nineteen nineties such acronyms had largely fallen out of favour and the Office of the Information Commissioner (which performs the regulation of the Data Protection Act (1998) and the Freedom of Information Act (2000) is known as ICO, Information Commissioner's Office. I still prefer Ofdat!