“Mutton dressed as lamb” is an oft-used phrase to describe the unfortunate incidences of older women attempting to pass off as younger than they are; with a view to securing a romantic encounter (old usage) or simply boosting their self-esteem (new age).

That little phrase stuck with me when looking at Google results for two recent scandals from Britain: firstly, the deaths of hundreds of people at a National Health Service (NHS) hospital in Mid Staffordshire, and secondly the horsemeat scandal – where ready or processed foods claiming to contain beef were found to contain liberal portions of horsemeat – but which has caused precisely zero deaths in humans.

In varying degrees, both are “mutton and lamb” stories: in the case of horsemeat masquerading as beef, quite literally so. The idea of unsuspecting and trusting patients going for health services to the NHS and finding instead a horrific set of services that would cause them much pain, suffering and eventually their lives – now, that is just an extreme, deadly and sick version of the same notion of mutton passing off as lamb.

According to Google search, the phrase “British horsemeat scandal” returned as many 6 million pages; a search done almost simultaneously for “NHS Mid-Staffordshire” returned just over a million hits (“NHS scandal” doesn’t fare a whole lot better). This is odd, for many reasons: for one, the NHS scandal involved the actual deaths by negligence of hundreds of people – between 400 and 1,200 people are thought to have died after much avoidable suffering in a single hospital administration according to the enquiry.

Yet, global media appear to have found the story of the horsemeat scandal more interesting and well, newsworthy. Why would that be the case?

Quite likely, there are both positive and negative factors at play here: on the side that finds horsemeat scandal actually more newsworthy the following points appear germane: Relevance: pretty much anyone (except vegetarians, of course) could find themselves the unsuspecting victims of the switch, consuming horsemeat instead of the beef they paid for; Entertainment: admit it, there is something funny about the notion of people in far-off places consuming meat that would be considered unfit for human consumption elsewhere; this couldn’t possibly happen here now, could it?; Capitalists: and of course, the general question of profiteering capitalists who would stoop to adulteration of people”s daily foods with a view to maximize their profit margins. What could be more newsworthy than exposing such despicable people

Admittedly, all of the above factors are much more important in the case of the National Health Service scandal.

The National Health Service of the UK is considered by many governments as the perfect example of state-sponsored universal healthcare; it is credited as the single largest contributor to the welfare of the British people following the privations of World War II. Anything that affects the reputation and functioning of the NHS can thus be considered important warning signals for countries – like France, Australia and Japan – that have adopted significant aspects of NHS management in their own countries.

Many countries are considering an expansion of their own national health programs following the financial crisis. The United States is the best example: surely, a failing of the NHS should feature in the current debate about government sponsored health services?

The scale of the scandal is pretty shocking, showing as it does a systemic disregard for the welfare of patients, a focus on achieving cost budgets rather than providing care, failure of secondary agencies charged with monitoring results, and perhaps more damningly, a systemic tolerance for poor standards.

This is pretty ghastly stuff, even grisly. If there is an innocent explanation for the disregard of this scandal (relative to the horsemeat one), then it could only be on two counts: the story was already well known as an inquiry was commissioned in 2010 while the actual timeline of deaths in Mid Staffordshire was primarily between the years 2005 and 2008; and aspects of the enquiry clearly indicated local factors that could not apply anywhere else.

A careful review of search results shows that news organizations in the US, Australia and other countries did not pick up the NHS story in 2010; there were multiple other stories at that time competing for attention including Iraq, the US economy and so on, but nothing quite on the scale of deaths by negligence in any major economy.

The second aspect, namely the specific nature of failure generally does not apply – if anything, the opposite case can be easily argued.

A vast left-wing conspiracy?

Almost a couple of decades ago now, when president Bill Clinton was accused of receiving sexual favors under the table in the Oval office (quite literally), his wife Hillary – now the recently retired secretary of state and a rumored presidential candidate in 2016 – commented on a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to defame the president, castigating the media for their onslaught on his character.

I have no need to comment on that story, but the question does beg: could we conclude from the lack of attention to the NHS scandal that a “vast left-wing” conspiracy is at work in global media?

It is easy to dismiss the notion that matters of health are not of interest to the general public: The debate about what was termed “Obama care” by the Republicans occupied center-stage in last year’s presidential elections.

The “horsemeat” scandal itself had supposed health motives, as the notion of meat of unknown provenance raised questions of food safety and health consequences. This segues into the general popularity of health-related shows, fads and so on in the rest of the media (including the super success of various medically oriented television shows).

Consider the utility of such media negligence:
Avoiding any tough questions of “could it happen here”;
Avoiding the question of whether governments have a legitimate role in the provision of health care;
Avoiding any introspection in the failure of safety mechanisms – on which governments around the world spend hundreds of billions annually – in the provision of services;
Avoiding the question of whether government-employed doctors and nurses – those romantic heroes of the left – are just as culpable of negligence and greed as their private sector counterparts.

Hold on. There is of course a “right wing” element of the popular media out there too. After all, there is Fox News, which hasn’t exactly distinguished itself for independence, particularly with respect to liberal, progressive ideas such as universal healthcare. I do not know why Fox did not make more of a fuss on the matter: it is possible that the ownership of Fox did not want to open itself to another line of attack after effectively / essentially losing the US Presidential elections last year. (Fox parent News Corporation’s media interests in the UK and elsewhere have been under intense scrutiny in the past two years: see Murdoch, Moody’s and Mandelbrot, Asia Times Online, July 20, 2011.)

Other right-wing commentators, blogs and others did try to highlight the NHS story – hence the million hits on Google to start with. The point is, they just didn’t have the same impact or appeal as juvenile jokes about the British being a race of “neigh-sayers” or some such awful pun.