What was behind BBC Scotland’s attack on the Scottish NHS?


  By a Newsnet reporter  
Last week BBC Scotland spent a day comparing the Scottish NHS with its English counterpart.
In a rather bizarre series of broadcasts last Thursday, both on radio and TV, the corporation spent the day informing Scottish listeners and viewers of the benefits of the English NHS.

  By a Newsnet reporter  
Last week BBC Scotland spent a day comparing the Scottish NHS with its English counterpart.
In a rather bizarre series of broadcasts last Thursday, both on radio and TV, the corporation spent the day informing Scottish listeners and viewers of the benefits of the English NHS.

According to BBC Radio Scotland, their health correspondent Eleanor Bradford had conducted an investigation in order to determine “whether Scotland has the better system or whether it is being left behind”.

The ‘star’ of the investigation was a woman called Beth Butterfield, who described her experiences as she tried to arrange personal care.  Interviews with two doctors, one from England and one from Scotland – that BBC Scotland just happened to find – gave a clear message; that Scotland was indeed being “left behind” and England’s embracing of GP empowerment was the way forward.

The item re-appeared on that evening’s Reporting Scotland.  Shoe-horned into the evening news programme, it looked ever so slightly out of place.

That evening’s Newsnight Scotland had virtually the same piece, this time supplemented by the fruits of Ms Bradford’s investigation, which turned out to be an unexplained and unexamined claim that ‘costs’ of patient care in the English region of Trafford was cheaper than in Scotland.

The odd fixation with the English NHS ended with Scottish Health Minister Alex Neil leaving BBC Scotland presenter Raymond Buchanan looking slightly foolish as he batted away point after point put to him by the BBC man.  By the end, Mr Buchanan was reduced to scrabbling around for newspaper headlines with which to throw at the Minister.

What was BBC Scotland doing not just reporting on the English NHS, but apparently trumpeting reforms being pushed through by the UK government?

It was a puzzle until Newsnet Scotland came across a little known report that had been compiled by a respected freelance journalist.

The report by Oliver Huitson gave a clue as to the reasons the reforms were given such an uncritical high profile.

Huitson’s investigation didn’t look at BBC Scotland, more’s the pity, instead it focused on the UK BBC’s reporting of matters relating to the English NHS – especially these very reforms.

According to Mr Huitson, he discovered evidence of widespread bias and censorship on the part of the state broadcaster in favour of UK Government reforms to the English NHS.

The report uncovered evidence that suggested:

  • the BBC failed to report on the lack of democratic mandate for the changes to the English NHS
  • the broadcaster consistently presented the bill using the UK government’s own highly contested description
  • links between healthcare firms, the Conservatives and the House of Lords were never reported
  • the significant role of the private sector in the new health market was never explored
  • the role of private firms in creating the bill was never examined or reported
  • sources with significant links to private healthcare were presented without a disclosure of their interests
  • lobbyists were used in place of genuine impartial experts
  • stories were reported that were biased
  • the BBC censored other important stories

The published report begins:

In the two years building up to the government’s NHS reform bill, the BBC appears to have categorically failed to uphold its remit of impartiality, parroting government spin as uncontested fact, whilst reporting only a narrow, shallow view of opposition to the bill. In addition, key news appears to have been censored. The following in-depth investigation provides a shocking testimony of the extent to which the BBC abandoned the NHS.

Some of the accusations the report levels at the BBC will be familiar to readers of Newsnet Scotland.  In short, the report effectively accuses the BBC of breaching its own charter, which calls on the broadcaster to report impartially.

One story that the BBC allegedly ignored was revealed by Channel 4 News who reported:

“GPs say they have firm evidence now that the government is planning to privatise the National Health Service as part of its reforms… In a document seen by Channel 4 News, plans are laid out for how services will be bought for patients… Under the NHS reforms, GP practices will form consortia and they will manage about 60 per cent of England’s NHS budget.  But it has been acknowledged that some GPs will not want to – or be capable of – managing such huge enterprises.”

The report also cited an excellent piece by Media Lens, entitled The End Of The NHS: Buried By The BBC, in which they note of the NHS reform Bill:

“On the very day the bill passed into law, the tag line across the bottom of BBC news broadcasts said ‘Bill which gives power to GPs passes’.  The assessment could have come from a government press release, spin that has been rejected by an overwhelming majority of GPs.  The BBC has also repeatedly failed to cover public protests, including one outside the Department of Health which stopped the traffic in Whitehall for an hour.”

This is the reform that BBC Scotland was pushing as an improvement that Scotland ought to be pursuing and this investigative report makes it clear that there was more to these reforms than the state broadcaster would admit.  Whilst BBC Scotland gave a brief mention of objections south of the border to these reforms, it did not explain the extent of these objections, which appears to have been considerable.

Far from supporting these reforms, most GPs in England are against them as this article in the Guardian makes clear.

Indeed the phrase, ‘empowering GPs’ used by the BBC to describe the reforms is also challenged by Professor Colin Leys, author of The Plot Against the NHS, who when asked by the report’s author whether he considered the BBC’s line to be accurate and balanced.  He replied:

“The BBC routinely described the Bill as a reform to empower GPs – the government’s description – rather than as turning the NHS into a market driven by shareholder interests, which was what the critics maintained – accurately, as is now becoming clear.  The BBC’s public service remit should surely have required it at least to present the Bill’s purpose as contested.”

According to the report, the episode “marks the culmination of the BBC’s slide into a far more traditional ‘state broadcaster’, an organisation afraid to challenge power and terrified of controversy.  In its reporting of domestic affairs the BBC seems resigned to the role of a bland and compliant megaphone for established interests.”

A compliant megaphone for established interests” – the phrase jumps out at the reader, especially those of us forced to endure BBC Scotland’s very peculiar brand of impartiality and balance and where censorship, in the shape of closing down Scottish online forums, is still allowed despite non-Scottish forums remaining open.

The report, which should be read to be appreciated, begged the question: Was BBC Scotland pushing English NHS reforms at the behest of its London controllers?

We’ll never know.

But this report should serve as a warning to those people who casually insist that the BBC in Scotland can be trusted to cover the independence referendum in a balanced and objective manner.

The full report can be downloaded and read here: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourbeeb/oliver-huitson/how-bbc-betrayed-nhs-exclusive-report-on-two-years-of-censorship-and-distorti