Big Issue Vendor

Ralf Little: “Jeremy Hunt challenged me to prove him wrong. So I did”

At a time when personality trumps policy as a campaign method, is social media the new political battleground?

Ralf Little found fame as dogsbody Antony in The Royle Family. He’d dropped out of medical school to take that role – and act year lashed out at the government over their treatment of the NHS. Jeremy Hunt bit back but Little had verified facts at his fingertips. Twitter was gripped and the debate was shared by thousands. He told us why he proved Jeremy Hunt wrong. 

My brother is a junior doctor and I started medical school myself (I dropped out after a few weeks to do The Royle Family). I’ve always had an eye on that world.

I watched [former Health Secretary] Jeremy Hunt spin the junior doctors’ strike – telling an untrue story to people who don’t have time to sift through all the bullshit to get to the facts. It’s not that people are stupid or ignorant, but now more than ever they don’t have the time.

He spun vast sections of the British public against doctors – actual doctors – doctors whose job it is to keep you alive. He spun it like doctors were greedy for wanting protections to ensure they could do their job safely and received fair compensation for it.

I started arguing back. Not losing my cool, but trying to convince people.

When the Jeremy Hunt thing happened, it was absolutely not my intention for it to blow up the way it did. I saw him lying on TV and I was furious. I went ‘you’re a liar, mate. Sue me if I’m not telling the truth, I dare you’. Then he came back at me and I was thinking – ok, I can’t let that go. He issued a challenge to see if I could prove him wrong, so I did. I got in touch with some of my junior doctor-activist mates on Twitter and we agreed that we couldn’t let it slide. We sat down together and said, right – let’s go at him hard.

Propaganda is so effective. If I’m to say – and I’m making these numbers up – 0.003% of the NHS budget goes on so-called health tourism and, actually, that’s far less than, say, parliament’s spend on ice cream. That’s less compelling an emotional story than ‘look at these people who have ten kids, and live off benefits from the state – it’s our money paying for that’.

In any big system, there are built-in margins of error. You’re not looking at the eight million people who would otherwise be struggling without benefits – you’re just picking a scary story. It’s much easier to scare people than it is to inform. The reason I was able to criticise Jeremy Hunt with facts is because he gave me the perfect opportunity.

None of this was deliberate or thought out. I didn’t feel a responsibility to use my platform this way. It’s just me being me – it’s an extension of what I’m like to talk to in the pub. I’m hard work, basically.

Truth be told, it makes me pretty miserable sometimes. Sometimes I wonder if I should just delete my account, and there have been times where I look back at things I’ve tweeted in the past and realise I don’t stand by them now. I think I’ve surely got a responsibility to say something given everything that’s going on in the world: the rise of proto-fascism, and the awful things people say, for example, about the homeless. I’ve got a responsibility to humanity. There are 180,000 people now who might read something I have to say and decide I have a good point.

Immediately the moment after I think that, I wonder: who the hell do I think I am? There’s a certain self-importance that comes with thinking you have something valuable to say. I have this internal conflict about it – I’m basically the Schrödinger’s cat of Twitter.

The opposite of ‘scientist’ isn’t ‘bell-end’

When push comes to shove, I’m probably just screaming into the void as much as anyone else is. Five years ago, I would’ve said different. I certainly don’t ever feel like I have the right to teach anyone anything. That said, sometimes – just sometimes – I’ll have an exchange with someone on Twitter that absolutely makes my week. They might just say that they hadn’t thought of something a certain way and thank me for taking the time to discuss it.

There is an astonishing sense of false balance that means people in power aren’t being held to account like they should. It’s not balance when you’ve got someone on to talk about climate science and then have someone else who comes on to say that climate science isn’t real because there are fairies at the bottom of the garden. The opposite of ‘scientist’ isn’t ‘bell-end’.

What concerns me is the public’s growing lack of ability to discern what constitutes a journalist. It’s opaque, and people aren’t reporting the full truth about Brexit because of some idea that there must always be someone to play devil’s advocate. If the chief economist says something’s going to be a disaster, that’s the news. You don’t need to find someone to refute it in contrived pursuit of balance. Journalistic critique is somewhat failing, but I think what’s worse is trying to be a journalist in a world where anyone with more than 10,000 followers qualifies as one.

Ralf Little is appearing in God of Carnage at Theatre Royal Bath 29 August – 15 September

Follow @RalfLittle on Twitter

Image: Matthew Chattle/Shutterstock