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Junior Doctors' Strike: One Strike, Many Narratives

28/01/2016 09:45 GMT | Updated 23/01/2017 10:12 GMT

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We've all been on a bit of learning curve in the last few weeks, receiving an education in the role of junior doctors and why it is that they have been driven to call their first strike in 40 years. Until that point most of our knowledge came from Scrubs but given that J.D, Elliot, and Turk resolved their difficulties with a high-five and a hug and never appeared to age I guess that never was the most accurate representation of life on the ward for a newly graduated doctor.

But the need to inform the public about the reasons behind the strike has produced a range of messages with no clear unifying narrative.

The British Medical Association, the trade union for doctors, has focused primarily on the risks that the new junior doctors' contract poses to patient safety. This argument states that the increased hours that doctors could be forced to work will make them tired and more likely to make basic but potentially life or health threatening errors.

It's understandable why the BMA would choose to emphasise this message: it is the simplest way of explaining the problems created by the new contract and the one that is most likely to gain public support - no one wants to be operated on by sleepwalking doctors.

But, for the media, it wasn't enough. The frame lacks the basic requirement of any news story: describing a battle between good and evil. Not known for their sympathy with strikes, the press nonetheless felt compelled by the weight of public opinion to throw in their lot with the doctors. The need to construct a clearer and more emotive narrative however meant that Jeremy Hunt entered stage left. In the hands of the media the strike became more about doctors standing up to the intentions of the evil Jeremy Hunt - there wasn't such a need to explain why they were standing up to him because the public have already largely bought into the "Jeremy Hunt is evil" frame.

There was of course nuance to this and some of the more "lefty" journalists have turned the dispute into a wider debate about the future of the NHS. Owen Jones writing in the Guardian argued that junior doctors were "standing up for the NHS". He sees the new contract as part of a wider government strategy for marketising and privatising the NHS - although the link between the changes to doctors hours and this hateful process are not made entirely explicit in his argument (unless one thinks that Hunt is actually hoping for dischord so that doctors are forced out of working for the public NHS and turn to the private sector instead - don't underestimate him).

Finally, there was the narrative of the protesters who came out in solidarity with doctors on strike. Here a third message emerged: that of the doctor as a "hero" and the "life-saver" to whom we owe a great deal. There is no doubt that what doctors do is essential, that doesn't need to be said. But, this frame is probably the least helpful in the debate. What it does is say that doctors deserve decent working rights because they are heroes, not because it's a basic right that we all share.

In short, it's not a common cause frame that furthers wider debates about the need to uphold all of our rights. The impact of this has already been seen this week with the press' reaction to the news that tube workers are planning a series of strikes over their pay and plans to introduce an all-night service. From being the vanguard of workers' rights one week, the press quickly turned their ire on the tube workers whose efforts to secure decent pay and working conditions cause, in their eyes, nothing but "misery" for others. There wasn't space for a debate about why they were striking and the merits of their action because the narrative that tube workers are inherently disruptive and greedy had already been created. Their labours are not seen in the same light as those of the life saving junior doctors.

We shouldn't be surprised that such an interweaving of narratives took place. The problem that the BMA always faced was in developing a campaign narrative in reaction to events that were largely forced upon them - the imposition of the new contract. In such circumstances they did an exemplary job in finding a key narrative at all and, for a while at least, having this is as the primary argument that was presented to the public. The complex nature of the contract, the rise of mass support for the strikes, and the added complexity that the NHS does need reform, just not like this, meant that the narrative was ultimately taken out of the BMA's hands. The media were probably all too happy for the "doctor is hero" argument to be developed knowing full well that this would do nothing to further the interests of workers in other sectors who might be considering strike action.

With the number of protests, strikes, and demos set to increase, we must find common cause between them. If we don't do this, we will all be called upon to reflect on the famous statement of the anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller: "first they came for the Communists but I did not speak up as I was not a Communist...When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out". The government might first come for the doctors but if we defend them because they are seen as virtuous while letting tube drivers be run over roughshod, our efforts will be put to waste because the government will continue to win the war even if it sacrifices some of the battles.