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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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.