The pro-coalition bias in the BBC's coverage of the NHS reforms

Research shows that the BBC failed to report the objections to the legislation found in other media outlets.

Health campaigners and media activists were given fresh cause for grievance last week as new evidence emerged of pro-governmental bias in the BBC’s coverage of the NHS reform bill. A report published on Friday by the independent inquiry OurBeeb went viral over the weekend, providing detailed and wide-ranging facts that lend support to a widely felt sensation that the institution failed to represent national opposition in the run up to the reforms.    
        
The research, which covers the two-year period from the bill’s announcement to its eventual codification as the Health and Social Care Act, is limited in main to the BBC’s online coverage of parliamentary and public response to the proposals, yet the results indicate in no uncertain terms reluctance on the part of the BBC to engage with opposition to the bill. Not only did the online coverage fail to address several crucial objections foregrounded in other newspapers - including the Mail on Sunday’s infamous expose of Monitor - financial links between healthcare firms, the Conservatives and the House of Lords, made public on a number of blogs, were never reported. Meanwhile, the question of democratic mandate was scarcely mentioned, and while Parliamentary antagonists were given a cursory platform, expert critics such as Colin Leys and Dr. Eoin Clarke were not given the space and opportunity to highlight the nature of their objections. Most flagrantly, when the bill was passed on 19 March BBC Online did not publish a single article of analysis.

As a member of the editorial team at OurBeeb, the incredulous task of fact-checking the report’s claims emphasised the extent of the schism between BBC reportage and the public regarding this issue. Critics of the report have been quick in pointing to the extensive results of the search terms "democratic mandate" "opposition" and "privatisation" in the period of the bill’s contestation. On closer inspection, however, such frequency is deceptive. The articles themselves in most cases present the reforms, unqualified, in the closeted language of the government report - “putting GPs in control” - while the critical phrases cited in defence are largely to be found in quotations from Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband and comments beneath the footer. "Privatisation" in particular, a term central to the public discussion of the proposals, is virtually absent from the editorial pieces.

Far from a component in a partisan argument this report therefore raises real questions as to the BBC’s capacity to provide thorough critical analysis of domestic news issues under its current organizational pressures. Why were fears over privatisation not explored or explained? Such glaring disjunction between public voices and public broadcasting should set alarm bells ringing for any organisation that is purportedly acting as a representative body. Most worrying is the emergence of this data in a context in which the organisation’s share of the news market is rapidly rising. A recent study by Enders analysis found the BBC’s share of total news consumption is over 60 per cent while Ofcom’s concern that the BBC is increasingly proving a threat to media plurality, as expressed in their June report, went largely unnoticed.

Given the BBC’s position as the UK’s primary news provider, further investigation into NHS coverage provided on other platforms is an urgent priority. The report’s call to the BBC to reveal the parameters of the complaints they received on this subject while providing a full account of their coverage are good starting points. For while an answer to such demands may not abate wider concerns regarding the problems with internal and external plurality, if the BBC is to move beyond defensive talk of "accountability" and be taken seriously as a democratic organisation, the procedures involved in compiling and presenting this coverage must be made available to the public.   

 

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era