I’m in a state of shock. After months of lamenting the BBC’s shameful lack of serious response to complaints regarding its non-coverage of the destructive effects of the government’s ‘reforms’ and cuts to the NHS, I turned on BBC News today to find that – at last – the issue was receiving some coverage. I was so taken aback and delighted that for a moment my mouth hung open. I may even have teared up a little!
And then I heard what the coverage was actually saying. While any coverage is better than none at all, which is what we’ve had more or less continuously since the Health and Social Care Act was passed in March, so much depends on how the issue is framed. And here the BBC – the poor, blackmailed, Tory-run BBC – failed pretty spectacularly.
I listened through several hours’ news bulletins, from one item on the NHS cuts in Manchester through to the end of another that also included problems in North Yorkshire – hoping for some balance. I didn’t find much. Here are some of the ‘highlights’:
Public negativity vs editorial ‘fact’
The coverage did include some street interviews with people who were strongly against the expected local closures in Manchester. However, whenever a news-reader or other ‘official’ commentator was referring to the government’s plans and intentions, and the reasons for them, these were almost exclusively stated as fact:
“Fresh fears are being raised in England that cuts will have to be made to the front line of the NHS if it is to cope”
No mention of any alternative to cuts, no mention of ‘if it is to cope with cuts the government claims are necessary, no questioning the ‘fact’ that cuts to the budget ‘have to be made’.
“The government insists that the NHS can rise to the challenge of cutting billions from its budget at the same time as undergoing major changes“.
Again, no questioning whether the cuts or the reforms are necessary, merited, or the best or only way forward.
Only once in all the reports I heard did I even hear reference to ‘the government believes’. Apart from that, everything related to the need for change and the outcome of the government’s cuts and ‘reforms’ was stated as simple fact.
The health ‘market’
A long interview with a (frankly smarmy!) doctor working for a GP surgery run by a private company (Virgin) in Birmingham, with an introductory piece by the reporter describing healthcare as a ‘growing market‘ that is ‘worth an estimated £10 billion‘ and which ‘businesses are very keen to get involved’ in.
No questioning whether our health should be considered as a market or an opportunity to make profit.
And a word from our sponsors..
The smarmy doctor’s interview amounted to a free commercial for Virgin. He stated ‘Because we’re a national company, we have the opportunity to draw on the experience of a wide network across the country…[to] learn lessons from around the country. By deploying [this], we’re able to provide a service..that’s just so much better than people are used to.‘
You’d expect a few challenges here. Something along the lines of ‘But doesn’t the NHS already have a national – and far more comprehensive – network of experience to draw on?‘ Or ‘Can you provide any solid evidence to support that “so much better” statement?‘
But no. What we get in the end is a virtual testimonial from the reporter: “The company promotes patient feedback. It says satisfaction rates compare well with the NHS” (which is a far cry from ‘just so much better than people are used to‘!). He does mention that patients have ‘some reservations’, but overall the tenor of the report wouldn’t be out of place in an ‘infomercial’. Interestingly, the young mother interviewed was completely unaware that the practice is run by Virgin – which just goes to show how ‘NHS’ is gradually becoming, under a venal government, just a brand from which private companies can profit.
In later reports there was a little attention given to ‘concerns’ that privatised healthcare might (!) mean companies caring more about profit than patient welfare and services and opens up the system to abuse with companies only referring patients to sister companies, with a very brief (and very good!) quote from an NHS campaign group. But find out ‘what will all this mean for patients‘, the reporter interviews the smarmy-doctor Virgin spokesman – ! – who then got a 5 minute opportunity to say how great Virgin is and why private companies syphoning profit out of the NHS is only going to be good for patients. If I had hair, I’d be tearing it out.
“Fragmentation bad” but CCGs are an opportunity!
In one of the earlier reports, there was an interview with Naomi Chambers, a Professor of Health Management at Manchester Business School (the clue is in the name of the institution!). While some of what she said was good, she spoke of the switch to the CCG system being an ‘opportunity‘ while at the same time stating (correctly) that ‘fragmentation leads to poor patient outcomes and is expensive‘. The report included a graphic showing that, in Greater Manchester alone, under the new system no less than 12 CCGs will replace Strategic Health Authorities and PCTs, while saying that across the country every GP practice will be involved in commissioning care. If that’s not fragmentation, I don’t know what is! But the report failed to even mention the idea, let alone question the assertion of ‘opportunity’ and improved care.
It’ll be cheaper. Somehow!
The report on the situation in North Yorkshire was intensely frustrating – and in its way even more blatantly slanted than the Virgin Birmingham piece. Here’s a quote from the BBC reporter:
“‘There is an over-reliance on expensive hospital care for things that could be dealt with closer to home.” (emphasis mine)
At this point I screamed at the television: “Says who!?” No analysis by experts. No interviews with experienced medical staff to question whether this is in fact the case. Nothing but an assertion of apparent, unchallenged ‘fact’.
The report went on to show an elderly gentleman being helped down the stairs of his home by a nurse, with a voice-over saying that the nurse was a member of “a new team set up to keep people at home and out of hospital” and that the health authority hopes it will reduce cost. The footage – of a 1:1 ratio of nurse to patient – was screaming for someone to ask the question whether a system requiring individual to have nurses provide care in his/her home could possibly really be cheaper than having patients in hospital where a team of nurses could provide care on a much more efficient ratio than 1:1. But I waited in vain. Apparently the question of whether and how it could be cheaper to provide care in the home wasn’t worth asking – it just is. The massively-increased risk of injury to both nurse and patient if the patient were to fall while there’s only one nurse there to catch him didn’t seem to occur to anyone either.
£20bn ‘needs’ to be saved
I lost count of how many times some variation of the statement appeared that the NHS ‘needs’ to make £20bn of cuts. There was never any question of whether that’s valid, whether there are options to raise more money rather than to cut spending; never a mention of whether it’s insane to think that £20bn can be cut from a current budget of £108bn without negative impact on standards and availability of care and treatment even in ideal circumstances – let alone at the same time as imposing a massive re-organisation. And certainly never a mention of the fact that Cameron’s Tories promised that they would never impose such an organisation.
The one moment of brightness in the whole thing was Andy Burnham’s emphatic promise that Labour will repeal the Act if successful at the next general election. But even here, the interviewer tried to challenge the sincerity and feasibility of the promise.
If I tried to list every bias, omission or begged-but-unasked question, I’d be here all day. Suffice to say that it’s been a(nother) day of disappointment and frustration so far.
The BBC held out one brief, shining moment of hope – and then snatched it away and dumped manure all over it. I’m still glad the destruction of our NHS is getting a mention at all at last, but the BBC has signally failed – yet again – in its duty to inform British people of what is happening to our rightly-treasured institutions under this malevolent bunch of bandits masquerading as a government. It’s as crucial as ever that we as individuals and collectively work hard to make sure that the establishment’s goal of public ignorance is prevented via whatever means we can. Thank God we live in the age of social media and blogs.