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Editor's blog 15 July 2008: Gerry Robinson - zombie for self-love

Policy zombies for (self-)love

The Canadian academic Robert Evans and colleagues described the existence of health policy zombies: ideas that, no matter how many times you shoot them down with evidence, get back up and keep coming at you.

‘Can Gerry Robinson Fix The NHS?’ was a 2006 BBC2 / Open University TV series, which explored whether the titular proposition was a feasible action plan.

Boy, was it a load of shit. To some extent, it was a protracted attempt to crap all over the professional reputation of Brian James, chief executive of Rotherham General Hospital NHS foundation trust.

Mainly, the programme was an extended bout of frottage between Sir Gerry Robinson (briefly pro-New Labour super-businessman) and his own black polo-neck-clad ego. It was of course quite horrible, as extended bouts of self-frottage tend to be.

The final episode of the original three-part series concluded with business guru Robinson realising (15 minutes from the end) that somebody had to actually pay for all the extra activity that a good time-and-motion student like himself had recommended the FT should crack on with.

The only conceivable response to a business guru who raised this issue at this point in proceedings is surely, “fuck off”.

Which, interestingly, was part of a message sent to The Self-Beloved Sir Gerry Robinson by the great John Cleese on hearing that Robinson’s corporate-raiding activities had put him in charge of Granada Television, and thus made Gerry boss to Cleese’s mate and top drama produce David (Brideshead Revisited / Jewel In The Crown / Joan Plowright’s brother) Plowright). Plowright was made redundant without much ado.

John Cleese’s full message to the then-plain Gerry Robinson was wonderfully succinct. He faxed (and signed) the message “fuck off out of it, you ignorant upstart caterer”. (Prior to Granada, Robinson had helmed a successful hostile takeover bid for Italian immigrant Charlie Forte’s Trust House Forte empire).

So, there are people you could warm to if you were cremated next to them, and then there’s Sir Gerry Robinson. To find him drawn as a jury member in the BBC Radio 4 programme on the NHS is profoundly dispiriting.

The two ‘witnesses’ were Professor Paul Corrigan (director of strategy and commissioning of NHS London SHA and former health policy advisor to Alan Milburn, John Reid and Tony Blair) and Professor Allyson Pollock (director of centre for international health policy, University of Edinburgh).

If you are on this website and still reading, you may be broadly familiar with these people’s opinions. You can find the whole thing herefor a week or so.

There are a couple of points to make here. The first, if you are particularly inattentive, is that Sir Gerry Robinson can by no manner of means be deemed to be a moderately impartial ‘jury member’ in this process.

The second is about Professor Pollock. Others have more strongly polarised views on her work: I would simply say that her work on the private finance initiative (PFI) has not yet, to the best of my knowledge, been refuted by any peer-reviewed publication. It therefore stands as the best commentary we have available on PFI.

Monitoring a 10,000-page contract that is under rules of commercial confidentiality (as Professor Pollock points out, has been the case in PFI) does not appear like something we would automatically want to do if we were stewards of public money.

There are dangers of the ‘no change, ever’ world view. Equally, while there have been times when I have not agreed with Professor Pollock’s viewpoints, I have always been glad that her work was there.