Books

Democracy in Action: the 2001 UK general election Media content analysis of UK, US and French press

Publisher: Echo Research Limited. ISBN: x100005687.48 pages.£25.

Emerging blinking into conference spotlights after a month of election purdah this June, NHS chief executive Nigel Crisp attacked the media for its coverage of the campaign in language seldom heard from civil servants.

With his old boss back in charge at Richmond House, Mr Crisp may have felt safe in attacking the newspapers for their 'unfair' and 'insulting' reports of 'third world wards' - and his robust defence of health workers will have been widely welcomed in the service.

But was the media coverage really as bad as all that? In fact, in the run-up to election day the state of the health service only figured on the media radar twice - and both times it was Tony Blair who ensured, through action or inaction, that the story continued to run.

First, instead of damping down a Guardian story based on a leak from the Institute for Public Policy Research, the prime minister chose to nail his party's colours firmly to the mast of publicprivate partnerships.

Then, confronted by the partner of a hapless NHS patient, he was reduced to a level of inarticulacy more often associated with his deputy.

It may have proved a turning point for at least one political career: junior health minister Gisela Stuart, who stood grinning at his elbow, did not return to her job on 8 June.

The analysis of broadsheet and tabloid coverage published here reveals not only that health was Labour's selfselected number one priority, but that positive and neutral coverage of the party's policies outweighed negative coverage by a margin of two to one.

In his speech to the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, Mr Crisp also criticised the 'simplistic' solutions touted by some newspapers.

But perhaps the most simplistic was the idea that a dose of private sector expertise could solve the NHS's problems - a panacea touted not by the media but the prime minister.

Democracy in Action will not tell anyone a great deal that is new about the election campaign.

Even without the benefit of a bevy of research students armed with a month's newspapers and a ruler, it was fairly apparent that the media largely backed the Labour Party, even if it was more critical than in 1997.

But it does provide a useful reminder that the government's failure to improve public services in general, and the NHS in particular, are not just figments of the UK media's imagination.

French and US newspapers came to much the same conclusions. Collusion?

Coincidence? Or perhaps an underlying truth.