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When the House of Lords recently passed Section 75 of the Health and Social Care Bill, there was no coverage on BBC News. The significance and contentiousness of this legislation, which opens the NHS up to a free market in healthcare, was explained here by Savi Hensman.
The failure of BBC News to cover the biggest change to our most treasured national institution since its inception was remarkable, and many people were dismayed. I, like many others, submitted a formal complaint to the BBC. The reply, when it came, was far from reassuring:
"Thanks for contacting us regarding BBC News’ coverage of the debate and vote on Section 75 of the Health and Social Bill in the House of Lords on 24 April 2013.
"BBC News has regularly covered and will continue to cover the changes in the NHS. Accordingly, we have reported on the progression of this bill through Parliament. The BBC News website reported on the most recent Lords debate and vote at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-22268417
"BBC Parliament provided live coverage of the debate and vote on 24 April and broadcast highlights of the session on 25 April. The full session can still be seen on the BBC’s Democracy Live website at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/house-of-lords-22283592
"We feel it is important to add that 24 April was a strong news day for health stories, with a number competing for space during our bulletins. On the evening of the vote and into the next day, BBC News covered the following health stories: growing pressure on Accident and Emergency Units and the subsequent discussion during Prime Minister’s Questions, the cosmetic surgery review, hospital mortality statistics, measles figures for England and a report on sugary drinks causing 20 per cent more diabetes.
"BBC News believes our health teams have reflected the movement of this bill through Parliament and other developments within the NHS across a range of our coverage."
So, effectively the BBC acknowledges that it failed to cover this important event on any news bulletin, relegating it to the Parliament Channel, which has tiny viewing figures, and the BBC website. This meant that anybody who had not closely followed the legislation through Parliament would have remained unaware of what happened on 24th April, and the very significant implications for the whole population. Busy working people who rely on BBC News may feel that they are keeping up with current events, but on this issue the BBC has singularly failed to inform them.
By listing the health stories it did broadcast on that day, the BBC only gives the impression that it went out of its way to cover anything but the legislation. Sugary drinks causing diabetes and a cosmetic surgery review were hardly dramatic news that couldn’t wait another day, or be featured on the website. As for the story about pressure on Accident and Emergency Units, this is surely a symptom of the great upheaval being wrought in the NHS, and arguably could not be properly addressed without awareness of the legislation bringing it about.
It seems that the BBC is keen to cover ‘health’ stories, and problems within the NHS, but is very reluctant to examine the structures and mechanisms by which health care is delivered, and the political decisions made regarding them. This is like covering crime but ignoring a revolution within the police service.
This failure to cover the NHS changes adequately is in stark contrast to the BBC’s excessive coverage of UKIP since the last General Election. Nobody votes for a party they’ve never heard of, so with its very small membership and limited resources, it’s impossible to imagine how UKIP would have achieved such a high profile without the assistance of the media, seemingly led by the BBC.
In one week this January I took note of who appeared on the Daily Politics, Any Questions, and Question Time are all flagship political programmes on the BBC. In that week, there were four appearances by a UKIP representative, with no Greens, despite the fact that unlike UKIP, they do have an MP. UKIP were definitely over represented, as they have been consistently during the last few years. They could not have bought the publicity such excessive air time gave them: it must surely have raised their profile and helped them to achieve their breakthrough in the Council elections.
These dubious priorities in news coverage and evident lack of political balance are a growing cause for concern regarding the BBC. One can only wonder what is happening, who is making the decisions, and why.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet