Why I was right to make 'Hitler spoof' video about botched NHS IT project

The creator of the now-infamous 'Downfall' parody of the care.data medical records project - on why parody addresses power imbalances.

Paul Bernal
4 March 2014

Image: Paul Bernal/YouTube

A week ago I watched the Commons Select Committee on Health hold its hearing into the proposed ‘care.data’ database system. It’s a subject close to my work – I’m a legal academic specialising in data privacy issues – and one that I’ve studied and written about before. Watching it, and in particular watching Tim Kelsey, the ‘National Director for Patients and Information, NHS England’ provoked an interesting reaction in me. First it annoyed me, then it made me laugh – and then inspired me...

That evening, when I had half an hour free, I put together a Downfall parody video, with Kelsey as Hitler, put it on YouTube and on my blog.

I was pretty pleased with it. I included a joke about Jeremy Hunt hiding behind a tree, a bit about the whole sell-off of the NHS and about the revelation that very day that ATOS were involved in the extraction of the data, as well as some of the key issues involved in care.data that I knew from my research.

The people in my field found the video funny and it got a bit of interest. But then something unexpected happened.

Sir David Nicholson, Chief Executive of NHS England (and in effect Tim Kelsey’s boss) tweeted a link to the video. After that things got a bit exciting. The press picked up the fact that Nicholson had tweeted it and my parody found its way into the Evening Standard, the Mirror, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Mail, and even Sky News.

The papers, of course, were interested primarily in the fact that Nicholson had tweeted the video – and then had to apologise for having done so.

Two reactions particularly interested me. Kelsey himself, who said “My view on the YouTube film: funny but we risk underestimating how important data-sharing is for the NHS. Hitler was not a joke.”

And that of shadow health minister Andrew Gwynne, who was quoted in the Evening Standard as saying "[t]here can be no excuse for showing Jeremy Hunt and his top officials in such an offensive video."

Offensive jokes?

Were they right? Is it inappropriate to make jokes about data sharing in the NHS, because that’s such a serious subject? It is offensive to make a parody that at least at a surface level compares public officials to Nazis?

I can see their point – but I think they’re fundamentally wrong in a number of ways.

I made the parody precisely because I think data sharing in the NHS is of crucial importance. I want the subject in the public eye as much as it can be, and I’ll use whatever tools I can to do that.

Sometimes – not always – comedy needs to be offensive. Sometimes that offensiveness is part of the point – personally, I think the way that people are being ridden roughshod over in relation to their health data is pretty offensive. Sometimes comedy – and ‘offensive’ comedy in particular – is one of the only ways that ordinary people outside the ‘circles of power’ can get their voices heard.

Though the papers focused on the fact that Sir David Nicholson had tweeted the video, a number of them also quoted the subtitles that I wrote verbatim. This was in the Independent:

‘As Hitler launches into a tirade in the video, the subtitles read: “This was supposed to be easy. People were supposed to give us all their data. We could take it package it up and make millions and millions. Big Pharma have been waiting. The insurance companies have been waiting.”’

This was in the Telegraph 

‘…the subtitled words of the actor playing Hitler - identified as Mr Kelsey - state that the project has "always been about making money".

"Who cares about ordinary people, they never understand things," it shows him saying.

"They don't have my vision for a better world"’

Could I have got the kinds of messages that I wanted to into a single national paper, let alone a whole number, by writing something ‘serious’? I’d written a serious blog on the subject just two days before – one which analysed the policy, quoted academic sources and did all the serious things that those who condemn parodies of this sort as jokes or offensive would theoretically like.

It got a few hundred readers and some praise from those in the privacy and data protection field. It didn’t get any attention either from journalists or politicians, or Sir David Nicholson or Tim Kelsey himself. The parody managed to get the attention of all of them and more.

Parody and power

Jokes by those with power at the expense of those without it are generally nothing but bullying.

The point of parody is to tease those with power. When there’s an imbalance of power, of resources and media access, humour is one of the key tools.

Parodies have a long, distinguished and often offensive history – Aristophanes lampooned Ancient Athenian politicians mercilessly and particularly enjoyed jokes about flatulence. Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ suggested that a solution to the problem of poverty was for poor people to sell their children as food for the rich. Offensive? Much more recently and more directly relevantly, Spitting Image’s 1987 election special, portraying the Tory cabinet as Nazis in a parody of Cabaret’s ‘Tomorrow belongs to me” remains one of the most chilling and effective pieces of TV in recent times.

The internet has changed the game in a number of ways – ways that can sometimes work very much in favour of the ‘little people’. Blogs are free and pretty easy to set up. YouTube channels too. My Downfall parody, though it looks impressive and professional, was actually made by using a free ‘make your own Downfall parody’ website. Downfall parodies – based on the 2004 German film – have been a ‘meme’ on the internet for a long time. I wrote the script, but all the technical stuff was done pretty much automatically. Social media did the rest – and serendipity.

I have a fair number of followers on Twitter, but I don’t have any other great resources. I’m not sure how Sir David Nicholson picked up the video – but I’m delighted that he found it funny enough to tweet it. If he hadn’t, it wouldn’t have come to the attention of the media.

There’s another key point: I have a blog, and with that I have a degree of freedom. I don’t have an editor who scrutinises my blogging. I don’t have to satisfy the needs of any ‘owner’ of my media channel – and nor am I shackled by so much of the fear that seems to pervade the mainstream media. I’m not under political control by anyone. This last point is perhaps the most important – politics in the UK these days seems so much under control, so much out of the reach of ordinary people that if we are to have any influence on anything we need to use every tool we can.

We need to use social media in particular. Social media has great reach – my other little parody, portraying Education Minister Michael Gove as one of the Mr Men, has had more than 400,000 views in the last year.

When faced by what often seem like the overwhelming forces of politics or officialdom, we need to keep our spirits up. Comedy does that. One of the best things about my various parodies has been the messages I’ve had from people ‘on the coalface’ saying that reading what I’ve written or watching my video has been that it’s brightened their days. We all need that if we’re going to fight – and right now, there are many fronts upon which we really need to fight.

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