Friday 28 September 2012

New report: How the BBC betrayed the NHS

‘The BBC has failed in its responsibilities to inform the British public about one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 21st century.’

This statement comes from a new report written and researched by OurKingdom, a democracy news website project of Open Democracy. The 8,000-word document, highlights a catalogue of failings by the corporation in its coverage of the Health and Social Care Act that include:

  • Never questioned or explored the lack of democratic mandate for the changes to the NHS
  • Consistently presented the bill using the government’s own highly contested description
  • Financial links between healthcare firms, the Conservatives and the House of Lords were never reported
  • Significant role of the private sector in Lansley’s new health market was never explored
  • 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

Amongst the failings listed is research conducted by this blog, Social Investigations, which revealed the institutional corruption and corporate takeover of our parliamentary system by private healthcare. 140 Lords and 65 MPs had financial links to companies involved in private healthcare, a damning statement on our political system. The report rightly points out the BBC’s failure to report this, although they were certainly not alone in neglecting this story.

A further search of the BBC website revealed that throughout the passage of the Healthcare Act, the BBC failed to challenge Andrew Lansley on private healthcare donations his office received when he was shadow health secretary. These connections were well known and published in most other newspaper media. The BBC acknowledged this with a somewhat pitiful response:

Factors such as how much national interest there is in the subject matter will all play a part in deciding the level of coverage and where it falls within a bulletin.

The OurKingdom report offers further condemnation of the BBC’s coverage under the title: ‘The unexplored role of the private healthcare industry the report states; ‘One of the most glaring absences of BBC reporting concerns the role of private health and consultancy firms.’

Monitor, the new ‘independent’ regulator, which is to be tasked with promoting competition, or as the marketing apparatchiks would have us believe, ‘promote patient choice’, is heavily linked to consultancy giants, McKinsey & Co. ‘Of the five members of the board, two, including the Chair, David Bennett, are ex-McKinsey staff’. Mckinsey were the company that recommended the £20 billion of savings the NHS must make over the next 5 years and were charged with writing large parts of the Health and Social Care bill.

The report reminds us of comments made by Mark Britnell, a senior adviser to David Cameron and KPMG’s Global Head of Health, when he spoke in a conference in New York: ‘the NHS would be turned into a “state insurance provider”, a “big opportunity” for the private sector; the NHS would be shown “no mercy”.’ Worth mentioning you might think, but ‘despite the story breaking on 14 May, the report tell us the ‘BBC did not mention the comments until 4 days later when they were mentioned in brief to explain a comment by Nick Clegg. It was not deemed a story in its own right, and it was never mentioned again.’

The BBC did however find time to quote the private healthcare lobby group, NHS Partners Network. The report tells us how the BBC ‘frequently cited’ the network but failed each time to mention the rather significant fact that they are loaded with vested interests. Their current members list contains 7 companies with financial connections to MPs, Lords or former MPs. They met with Andrew Lansley in 2007 and held a 'meeting with Lansley on the Conservative party's draft bill.' They were in fact involved in a lot more than that.

Not in the report, but worth mentioning is the case of Oliver Letwin. In Nicholas Timmins book, ‘Never Again?’, we learn how a deal was struck between Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander as part of the coalition negotiations. The deal regarding the NHS was arrogantly - Give us the NHS and we will give you Lords reform.

In January 1988, the Centre for Policy Studies published a document written by a key member of Margaret Thatcher’ Policy Unit.  The publication was titled ‘Britain’s Biggest Enterprise, ideas for radical reform of the NHS’. The author was Oliver Letwin. The publication focused on two options for change in the NHS, both under the ‘principle of charging’, health credits or a national ‘health insurance scheme’. In June 2004, it was reported in the
Independent that Mr Letwin had told a private meeting of construction industry representatives in his constituency in Dorset, that the “NHS will not exist” within five-years of a Conservative government. Take a look on the BBC website and there is no mention of any of these stories.
There are some important questions the BBC needs to answer. It is understood that the BBC is going through a nervy time. Like all public funded institutions it is being forced to make cuts to its service and with a government in place, which was so desperately trying to give more power to Murdoch.

There is no doubt that under a Conservative government and even one tempered by a largely submissive coalition partner, the BBC feels under pressure. Prior to getting into power David Cameron had called for the licence fee to be frozen for a year, by the time they got into power, this had become six years. Further support for this action came from Jeremy Hunt the then Culture secretary who said: "The BBC has to live on the same planet as everyone else." The same planet presumably that watched the unfolding hacking scandal with Mr Hunt waving the flag for Murdoch’s BSKYB bid.

Reducing the licence fee will naturally affect quality, there are to be fewer new factual programmes, which have already declined over the last few years. A total of 140 jobs are gone from the news division, which will hinder the BBC’s ability to produce the investigative journalism that it can do so well.

Attacking the BBC has multiple advantages to the Conservatives. It will weaken the service and help push the agenda of ending the licence. A tactic that is repeated across all privatisations; run it down, make the service so poor that people will cry less when it is finally dismantled. Indeed, the commercial arm of the BBC Worldwide service is certainly in their aims.

The BBC is to be defended or else the likes of Murdoch become the more powerful force and nobody wants Fox news in the UK. Faith however needs to be restored, and not challenging Lansley on his healthcare donations and so many of the other failures of their Health bill coverage as highlighted in this report is simply sloppy journalism.

In addition it doesn’t help our confidence, when we learn via the Telegraph, (no angels themselves), that the BBC spent £2.2 million of public money on private healthcare for hundreds of senior BBC staff between 2008-2010. Neither does it help having Lord Patten of Barnes as Chairman of the Trust. The Trust is responsible for ensuring standards such as impartiality and fairness be maintained in the public interest. The Conservative Peer is a member of the European Advisory Board for a private equity investment company called Bridgepoint. The private equity firm which has been involved in 17 healthcare deals over recent years Eight of these companies remain as their current investments, which include four in the UK at a combined investment worth over £1.1 billion. One company acquired by Bridgepoint was residential care company Care UK, whose chairman was the person who donated to Lansley.

The report concludes with some recommendations to put the issues raised to rest.

-       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.

The BBC is an important part of our society, and the NHS even more so. Are they intentionally not covering these important issues or is it simply poor journalism? If it is the former, then why and who is informing where they should be researching? If it is the latter, then what is the recruitment process for BBC journalists, because quite frankly, they are not doing their job?

Across its services, the BBC reaches a staggering 90% of people in every week. If the BBC doesn’t cover it, then a lot of the public will not know about it. There is so much more in the report by Open democracy and it is a vital and important read. Not least of all is the fact that blogs written by concerned members of the public, played a vital role in getting information out that the BBC and the media as a whole did not.

As Indymedia, the global volunteer activist media organisation have been saying for years:

You are the Media!


  1. Well said. This is absolutely true, and scandalous in the way the public has been kept in the dark. Most people still don't know the NHS is being dismembered and the BBC's failure to report is a major reason for this.

  2. My complaint to the BBC over their bias was summarily dismissed by them twisting my questions out of relevance.


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