How Father Ted creator Graham Linehan sparked NHS backlash on Twitter

Graham Linehan Twitter

Exclusive: The award-winning comedy writer talks to The First Post about why he took on the American right over the British healthcare system

BY Seth Jacobson LAST UPDATED AT 06:59 ON Wed 12 Aug 2009

The First Post can reveal that the prime mover behind the 'We love the NHS' campaign on Twitter, which has seen tens of thousands of users of the microblogging service rush to defend the British health system, is Graham Linehan, the television comedy writer who created Father Ted and The IT Crowd.

Linehan was moved to start the public backlash in disgust at claims being made about the NHS in the United States by right-wingers seeking to derail Barack Obama's $1trillion healthcare plans.

The campaign has drawn acknowledgement from Gordon Brown, who tweeted that the "NHS often makes the difference between pain and comfort, despair and hope, life and death", his wife Sarah Brown, and a host of comedians including Stephen Fry and Dara O'Briain.

But the most heartwarming messages of support - posted with the #welovetheNHS hashtag that allows the website to group the posts together - have come from members of the general public.

Bigtitch wrote: "Neighbour - got cancer - radiotherapy, home visits, nurses, dietitians, physios - 3 years later still alive and not bankrupt" while Harriet Crosse posted: "Scary operation in middle of dissertation year at uni. Away from home/family. Nurses amazing. So kind. I’ll never forget". Yorkshire Len’s experience of the service was simply: "Time from mother being diagnosed with breast cancer to successful removal of tumour - 5 days."

Linehan, an early adopter of Twitter who has posted more than 10,000 tweets and boasts in excess of 25,000 followers, told The First Post on Wednesday night how he decided to take on the right-wing blowhards of the American media, such as Glenn Beck of Fox News.

"One of the benefits of the internet in general and Twitter specifically is that, for the first time in history, humanity is able to have a global conversation. People like Beck used to be able to spout lies about other countries without any fear of people outside the USA listening in and correcting him.

"But everything's different now, and I thought that if we got ‘We love the NHS’ to become a trending topic, it might act as a counterweight against the lies of the American right, who are being particularly obnoxious at the moment."

The 41-year-old Irishman, who started out as a music journalist before turning to comedy writing, added: "Now, if an American supporter of universal health care wants to pull up some testimonials on how the British feel about their system in order to bolster their argument, they just have to do a search for that hashtag and boom... They'll find thousands of them."

Linehan knew he was taking a risk when he launched his 'We love the NHS' campaign. "I was a little bit worried that, because no health care system on earth is absolutely perfect, the trend might fill up with lots of negative stories. But to my amazement, the response was almost 100 per cent positive. There were, of course, people who weren't happy with their experiences, but there were so few that I was able to reply to those people and remind them that I wasn't saying the NHS was perfect, just that it was better than the US system."

Linehan began the campaign with a simple post "http://bit.ly/5AP9P #welovetheNHS", linking through to an article about the attempt in America to link Stephen Hawking to the failings of the NHS – which, as we reported on The First Post earlier today, fell flat when Hawking himself responded: "I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS".

This was followed with "Please retweet all your NHS love using the hashtag #welovetheNHS" and then an exhortation to fellow Twitterers Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross to join the campaign. Fry has since joined the throng.

After watching his campaign snowball, Linehan has a warning for Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan who went on Glenn Beck's Fox News show to join in the attacks on the service. "People in the UK are fiercely proud and protective of the NHS, and however much they moan and gripe about it, you attack it at your peril. I have a feeling that Daniel Hannan is about to find this out the hard way." · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.