File:How the BBC betrayed the NHS.pdf

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Disclaimer (#3)Document.png report  by Oliver Huitson dated 27 September 2012
Subjects: BBC, NHS
Source: Open Democracy (Link)

Wikispooks Comment

In the two years building up to the government’s NHS reform bill, the BBC has 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 has been censored. This in-depth investigation provides a shocking testimony of the extent to which the BBC abandoned both the NHS and its Charter obligation of impartiality.
See Also

  • Social Investigations Blog - A highly recommended, comprehensive blow-by-blow analysis of the events leading up to the passages of the Health and Social Care Act, plus coverage of the ongoing fall-out.

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How the BBC betrayed the NHS

A report on two years of censorship and distortion


Much has been written about the failure of the BBC to properly inform the public of the nature of the coalition government’s NHS bill, now the Health and Social Care Act, passed by the Lords on 19 March 2012. Many felt the BBC had abandoned the NHS under Conservative pressure and it appears significant numbers lodged complaints. And quite rightly. Having spent a number of days researching BBC coverage of the NHS, the picture which emerges should be of deep concern for both the BBC and the public. For whatever reason – and there are a number – it appears the BBC made a concerted effort to follow the government line, censor critical facts, bury fundamental elements of the reforms and present opposition to the bill in an intentionally limited and shallow manner. Their requirement to report impartially appears to have been fundamentally breached.

To avoid receiving a stock BBC response – ‘we covered the issue thoroughly with 146 articles including both critics and those in favour’ – considerable time has been spent researching the BBC’s coverage from 1 May 2010, just before the Coalition took office, to 1 April 2012, shortly after the bill was passed. Due to the difficulties of searching within radio and broadcast material without substantial time and resources, the focus has been primarily, but not exclusively, the output of BBC Online, both news and analysis (blogs have been excluded, though their material appears similarly limited).

The findings have been separated into nine sections:

  1. Legitimacy
  2. The bill no one voted for
  3. The unexplored role of the private healthcare industry
  4. The donations the Beeb refused to believe
  5. The stories that weren’t
  6. The March black out
  7. Lobbyists over experts
  8. Giving power to GPs?
  9. Why the BBC chose the government over the health service
  10. Conclusion.


The BBC’s coverage of the NHS bill represents a profound failure to inform the public on an issue of the utmost importance. To summarise, it appears that:

  • the BBC never questioned or explored the lack of democratic mandate for the changes to the NHS
  • they consistently presented the bill using the government’s own highly contested description
  • expert critics were not given the space and opportunity to highlight the true nature of their objections
  • financial links between healthcare firms, the Conservatives and the House of Lords were never reported
  • the significant role of the private sector in Lansley’s new health market was never explored
  • fears over privatisation were occasionally stated but never explored or explained
  • the role of private firms in commissioning care was not properly explained, if at all
  • 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
  • the BBC censored key stories, particularly as the bill reached its final stages. On 19 March 2012 when the bill was finally passed in the Lords, BBC Online published not a single article of news or analysis on the bill.

This research focuses mainly on the output of BBC Online, in its news and analysis. It is possible that their radio and broadcast coverage was significantly different but this seems unlikely considering the number and content of other complaints on their coverage. It is possible that the searches done for this research were not extensive enough and there may be considerable material in a range of formats refuting the criticisms made above – something I hope the BBC can shed light on. Furthermore, it is suggested here that the BBC refused an FoI request to release the number of complaints they have received over their NHS coverage.

If the above criticisms are found to have merit either in full or in part, however, then the BBC has some serious questions to answer. It is not in the government that the strength of the BBC lies – a parliamentary system captured by forces inherently opposed to its existence – but in the British public, the support of which it should rigorously protect. If it continues its slide into an elaborate extension of the Number 10 press office and loses its connection with the public it will find its friendships in Westminster to be short-lived.

To put these issues to rest, the BBC should:

  • release full data on the complaints it has received over its NHS coverage, if it has not done so already
  • formally address the concerns listed above
  • make available to the public, journalists and academics a full account of their coverage across all mediums so that it can be properly analysed.

Considering the importance of both the NHS and the BBC as national institutions, it is crucial that these concerns are addressed.

About the author

Oliver Huitson is Co-Editor at Open Democracy's 'OurKingdom' and a freelance journalist. He is reading for a Masters in Politics and Government at Birkbeck.

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