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.   

 

A thunder cloud at the BBC. Photograph: Getty Images
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.