By The Media Monitor
On Friday October 1st a story led the BBC Scotland news agenda. A melodramatic headline adorned the online version – ‘Nearly 200 care homes took mainly untested patients’.
The headline was parroted by presenters on the Good Morning Scotland news programme. It led the morning edition of Reporting Scotland. It was repeated throughout the day and into the evening. “Data obtained by the BBC …” were the words that introduced each news bulletin.
The narrative accompanying the story was shocking.
• The BBC had uncovered data the Scottish Govt had apparently sought to hide. • The discharge of untested patients into care homes at the start of the pandemic had caused Covid outbreaks in those care homes. • Scottish government negligence had killed thousands.
Bolstering the narrative were comments from the Scottish Conservatives. The party’s social care spokesman Craig Hoy said the figures showed that “critical errors” by the Scottish government meant it had “completely failed to protect our elderly and vulnerable residents in care facilities, which has resulted in thousands of families grieving the loss of a loved one.”
Appearing on Radio Scotland that afternoon, the person who had acquired the data on behalf of BBC Scotland, Marc Ellison, reinforced the narrative. Listeners were left in no doubt that it was proof that discharges had caused Covid outbreaks.
On that evening’s Reporting Scotland, the case of an elderly patient who had died from Covid after being discharged from a hospital was used to further reinforce the ‘message’ that the discharges caused Covid outbreaks.
Case closed. Scottish government guilty. Or was it?
There was only one flaw. The narrative was invention. The suggestion that discharges into care homes had led to outbreaks of Covid was baseless. There was zero evidence to justify it. And what’s more, BBC Scotland knew it was baseless. The broadcaster’s own statistician had said so months earlier.
On April 21st 2021, the BBC’s Head of Statistics Robert Cuffe concluded that research into care home discharges contained a margin of error that meant you couldn’t be sure that they raised the risk of Covid outbreaks. Moreover, Cuffe even argued that care homes that received discharges “might actually have seen slightly lower rates of outbreaks when you take other factors into account.”
So if the BBC’s own statistician concluded there was no evidence that discharges of patients into care homes at the start of the pandemic increased the risk of Covid, that it might even have decreased that risk, why did BBC Scotland promote a narrative that implied discharges had indeed caused Covid outbreaks?
The answer is we don’t know. We only know that it did. The data acquired by Marc Ellison was used as a vehicle which drove a narrative intended to convince the public the Scottish government had been negligent and thousands had died as a result.
But that wasn’t all. Missing from this fake narrative was the actual background story from the early days of the pandemic. Absent was the context which led governments across the UK to discharge elderly patients into care homes.
What BBC Scotland refused to reveal was the advice health services across the UK had been given at the time. That advice had been issued by the UK government. It said it was entirely safe to discharge patients into care homes … even if they had already tested positive for Covid.
The advice contained the following: “Some of these patients may have Covid-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic. All of these patients can be safely cared for in a care home if this guidance is followed.”
So, a practice BBC Scotland was presenting as unique to Scotland that had apparently led to the deaths of thousands of elderly patients, was actually UK wide.
Moreover, in late March and early April, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives repeatedly demanded these elderly patients be discharged from hospital faster in order to free up hospital beds.
For a story that centred around discharges from hospitals into care homes at the start of the pandemic, this was very important context you’d have thought. But not BBC Scotland.
BBC Scotland has never once reported the UK government advice or the demands by Scottish Labour and the Scottish Tories for patients to be discharged. Never once. Yet both are absolutely crucial to understanding the reasoning behind hospital discharges at the start of the pandemic. All health services across the UK did exactly the same thing.
There’s little doubt that BBC Scotland deliberately crafted a story to make it appear as though the broadcaster had acquired proof that discharges were behind care home outbreaks. There’s also little doubt that it implied the Scottish government had engaged in some kind of cover up, and that only the diligence of one of its reporters had obtained ‘smoking gun’ data.
But it was completely manufactured. Context was absent. Innuendo was favoured. Narratives were spun. The public was deceived. The bereaved were used.
At best this was unethical journalism. At worst, given public cash ultimately funds everything that emanates from BBC Scotland, it was fraud.