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Editor’s blog Monday 6 July 2009: Mail chauvinism; cats exiting bags; not-smart cards; and Bob Sang’s memorial

You may not yet understand the Mail newspaper’s secret mission.

You may have thought of it merely as a reactionary, anxiety-peddling, little-Englander middle-market tabloid full of comedy health scare stories; gaily juxtaposing finger-wagging features about eating disorders with a PR puff for the latest diet book and a bitchy column about celebrity cellulite; balancing the intermittent interesting bit of news with ‘did aliens build Stonehenge?’ features.

Technically competent, well-resourced and commercially successful: these are the things you probably know about the Mail.

If so, you have missed the Mail’s hidden agenda as a socially positive labour-saving device. Buyers of the Mail, like people who wear a baseball cap backwards or a t-shirt printed with a comedy slogan or who quote TV comedy sketches past the age of 14, save us from wasting time and effort getting to know that person, allowing us instead to quite reasonably assume that they are a buffoon.

Traditional values and vagina monologues
The Mail insists that it stands up for traditional values. It is interesting to speculate what its target audience of holders of traditional values and professional and aspirational women would make of editor Paul Dacre’s editorial conferences, fondly known to staff as ‘the vagina monologues’ for Dacre’s liberal use of the ‘c’ word.

This is the only liberal thing about him.

The Mail not only understands La Rouchefoucauld’s dictum that “hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue”; it lives by the creed.

This is rarely more obvious than in its attitude towards women. Though they represent a significant part of its readership (a similar Stockholm syndrome relationship to that between trades unions members and the ‘soaraway’ Sun in the 1980s), the Mail’s editorial attitude to women is confused.

For the Mail, women are a Good Thing – so long, of course, as they share its traditional values. Women who use the ‘c’ word at all – let alone with Dacre-esque profusion – would be as welcome as asylum seekers or single mothers.

Women may have careers, so they can aspire to afford the UK’s high house prices (another Good Thing in MailLand); but must give them up if they have children.

A Mail woman must not have an abortion.

Now the Mail has become the dumping ground for a particularly baroque conspiracy theory about the reporting and press-releasing of comments by Conservative shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley. The well-respected Sally Gainsbury of Health Service Journal is the femme fatale in this paranoid fantasy.

Internet conspiracy theory
Mail political editor Simon Walters and his colleague Glen Owen (the distinguished author of this most profound of public health encomiums, and thus clearly a health and public policy journalist of note – and in no way a rewriter of press releases) conjure up a murky world of the new-fangled internet-web being used to entrap Mr Lansley - a simple, well-meaning politician whose humble aspiration is to be the next health secretary.

The wily Ms Gainsbury used an arcane journalistic technique known to anonymous, non-existent media insiders as an ‘interview’ to read Mr Lansley’s mind by dint of asking him questions about his plans and policies.

Not only did fearless sleuths Walters and Owen uncover the fiendishly cunning Gainsbury’s dark arts operation, their tireless investigation revealed that she is “glamorous”.

Thank goodness. Our knowledge of the events in question is much-improved by the inference that Sally Gainsbury’s charms are so paramount as to turn Mr Lansley’s head and make him talk complete nonsense. Indeed, given that the ‘interview’ was conducted by phone, such glamour must be suspicious … even perhaps … supernatural?

The Conservatives claim Mr Lansley’s remarks were misquoted by Sally Gainsbury – yet intriguingly, although taping ‘interviews’ is now routine by both parties, they have produced no alternative transcript or recording. It is highly likely that if pressed, Ms Gainsbury could do so; yet again, they have not asked for this to be released.

One wonders why.

The Mail team seek to infer that Gainsbury is not objective. They report that her partner is Alex Hilton, a Labour political player who runs the (temporarily offline) Recess Monkey website, who will stand as a parliamentary candidate at the next election.

Mr Hilton is clearly parti pris politically.

Walters and Owen are evidently not familiar with Gainsbury’s work. Like any good journalist (admittedly, not a species they will meet too often in the Associated empire which owns the Mail), she is an equal opportunities troublemaker.

It requires only a cursory look through her work for HSJ via the new-fangled internet to establish this.

But no doubt Walters and Owen are very busy people with no time for actual research, so they could look here, here, here or here - assuming they were interested in facts as opposed to fiction.

Or bias, which is the inference Walters and Owen (or perhaps sources in Conservative Central Office) want to plant in this case. Unfortunately for the contention, the case they make against Sally Gainsbury is pitifully weak and comically sexist.

These gentlemen of the press may move in a world where their female partners would be uncritical accomplices to their political bias: it sound a lot like Mailland.

The rest of the world has noticed that food rationing and national service have ended and colour television has been introduced.

Bundred lets the cat out of the bag
Audit Commission chair Steve Bundred’s article in The Observer made explicit what has been discussed on this and other sites (including by a certain Sally Gainsbury): that public sector wages are going to be looked at hard by the government of whichever political complexion.

Bundred rightly shoots down with both barrels Gordon Brown’s suggestion that the next election will be on the dividing line between investment and cuts. He notes what the policy community has long known: that variations in cost, quality, activity and outcomes in healthcare far exceed what could reasonably be expected from a normal distribution curve.

Not-smart cards
Another Conservative policy – on personal ownership of e-health records through services like GoogleHealth and Microsoft HealthVault – initially looks sensible. Where patients are motivated to hold their own records in maternity, the rate of lost or not-available records is vanishingly low. The Centre for Policy Studies recently put this in a pamphlet.

Yet the excellent Michael Cross of The Guardian rightly points out why the idea is no panacea.

Bob Sang memorial
Saturday saw fond laughter, fine music, family memories and friends’ tributes to the late Bob Sang. Among the smiles and the tears, a life lived to the fullest was celebrated fittingly and beautifully.

Martin Neilam spoke rightly of Bob’s “sentience” – an emotional engagement which topped his undoubtedly high intellignce, and rounded and engaged his interactions with people from all backgrounds.

Fiona Reed observed how the Health Foundation leadership students whom Bob taught often only understood what he had been saying after the event, quoting movingly from emails she and Tim Sims had received from the alumni. She rightly concluded, “there is no way of telling the true extent of Bob’s work”.

There were wonderful words from Bob’s daughter Katherine on him as a father; a lovely tribute from Private Eye’s “MD” Phil Hammond read by Bob’s son James; and a warm and witty resume of what people had said about Bob by his wife Lisa.

The huge sense of loss felt by all present was balanced by the clear and ongoing and enormous legacy Bob leaves us.

It is now up to us what we will do with it.

Thermodynamics and legends
The first law of thermodynamics in physics says that energy can neither be created nor destroyed: it can only change form. This is also known as the law of conservation of energy.

Nobody conserved energy less than Bob: he radiated it. Shortly after his death, fumbling for words to express my regard for Bob to his wife Lisa, I called him a “legend”. Lisa rightly observed that Bob would have laughed at being described as such.

“Legend” is not right for Bob – it’s too monolithic. But perhaps aspects of it fit.

Firstly, legends are stories which, although not literally true, are based on an absolute and universal truth. Secondly, people and societies draw on legends for what they need, and can re-make legends – co-creating them to fit their purposes.

I hope and think Bob might have recognised something in that.