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31st October 2013

Save Our NHS: Where were the media for Manchester’s biggest protest?

Valentine Landeg argues that the press need to highlight the plight of public services for protest to be effective

Last month 50,000 people marched on the Conservative conference in the largest demonstration Manchester has seen in decades. Not since the Thatcher era have so many people taken to the city’s streets in a show of collective anger and frustration at the Conservative Party’s program of cuts and privatisations.
Jeremy Hunt’s plan to auction certain services provided by the NHS to private conglomerates goes against the ethos of the NHS itself. Many people fear that handing large swathes of the NHS to profit-chasing businesses will have detrimental effects on the care provided.
Allegations of corruption aside, what this process boils down to is the fragmentation of an institution that many believe represents the pinnacle of British society. That is why on a balmy September afternoon in Manchester, nearly every group in Britain was represented in  their opposition to the plans for the NHS.
From Liverpool Road, via the Tory conference in Manchester Central and down Oxford Road, whistles blew and flags waved in what Manchester police called the largest and most peaceful protest they have ever encountered. The march concluded with the 50,000 demonstrators congregated in Whitworth Park to hear talks from the likes of Owen Jones, Len McClusky and even Coronation Street’s Julie Hesmondalgh.
What was surprising was the scant coverage the rally received in both the national papers and on news channels. The demonstration itself featured on no front pages and coverage from the BBC was described by Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Burnham MP as ‘cursory’. Reports of the conference’s announcements in the Guardian, such as George Osborne’s 7-year plan of austerity, barely mentioned the immense protest taking place among the main arteries of Manchester which surround the conference.
It is crucial to remember that despite the momentum behind the Conservative’s program of ‘efficiency saving’ it is possible for communities to unite to defend the services they cherish. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s apparent crusade on the crowning jewel of Britain’s social policy suffered an awkward defeat at the hands of the people of Southeast London earlier this year. An alliance of locals formed to oppose the prospect of their local A&E being shut down. Lewisham Hospital’s A&E, a financially and medically successful service, was to be closed, leaving three boroughs and 750,000 people with only one accident and emergency unit.
Ardent protesting from local communities and a high level of news coverage led to the case being taken to the high court where the cuts were found unlawful. This is an encouraging example of the influence people-power has in regulating the Conservative’s campaign of rampant austerity measures. The protests in Lewisham and Manchester are communicating that the NHS is off limits to the powers that be, with tangible results. If David Cameron wanted a Big Society, he is certainly getting it now.
To win the war against the policies that betray the very foundations of our welfare state, we need the media to bring this degradation of services to the public eye. Not covering stories such as Manchester’s big protest  undermines both the cause and the people who care about it.

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