The BBC and the NHS Act: the fall-out, and a response from the Beeb

Oliver Huitson's landmark investigation of the BBC's coverage of the Health and Social Care Bill for ourBeeb saw a phenomenal response. Now the BBC responds to the report - but is their defence good enough?

Dan Hancox
4 October 2012

Well, the incredible work Oliver Huitson put into the exclusive ourBeeb NHS report we published on Friday was not in vain.

Ever since this project began in May – and for many months before that, in fact – I’ve encountered people across all parts of the political spectrum lamenting that the BBC was not giving the government’s historic Health and Social Care Bill anything like the scrutiny we have a right to expect from the public service broadcaster we all pay for. As well as complaints from scores of ordinary licence fee payers, I’ve seen Labour Shadow Health Minister Jamie Reed put the case to BBC News channel controllor Kevin Bakhurst, and openDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett put the case to former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke at an ourBeeb event. The 'debate' would always go like this, if I may paraphrase:

Accuser: The BBC hasn’t covered the NHS bill nearly well enough.

Defender: Yes it has. [Bakhurst's exact reply was "it was covered extensively over many months. In midst of very busy news period."]

*Debate ends*

There was something unsatisfying about this I couldn’t quite put my finger on. So we set out to test our (widely-shared) observations. Oliver Huitson's excoriating 8,000 word report did more than touch a nerve. It went viral on Friday and over the weekend, getting thousands of tweets, support from numerous celebritiesfollow-up blogs, and plaudits across the internet. The Guardian have since asked us to write it up, as did the New Statesman – both of these accounts act as very useful summaries of the findings, if you don’t have time to read the full report (though you absolutely should – and over 40,000 already have).

We believe it is now incumbent on the BBC to prove their coverage of the bill was thorough, balanced and extensive enough, contrary to our evidence – we don’t have the resources at ourBeeb to sit down and study two years of broadcast footage (though perhaps an academic institution could now take up the research?).

We have invited the BBC's Director of News Helen Boaden to address the issue, and yesterday received this statement from the BBC:

“We are confident that our coverage of the NHS bill has been balanced and impartial. It’s not surprising that interest groups on either side of the debate might criticise the BBC’s coverage but our aim is always to give audiences the necessary information to understand the important issues and we have done that over the course of the debate by reporting a range of arguments for and against the Bill. This has included background articles on the plans for the NHS, articles detailing the concerns of those opposed to the Bill and, just last week, an in-house poll about public attitudes to the NHS.

“For example, Oliver Huitson states that the BBC did not report a British Medical Association denunciation of the changes on 1st March 2012 but ignores the fact that we have reported the concerns of the BMA, alongside those of the Royal College of Nursing and Unison, on a regular basis for the past 18 months. He also suggests that the BBC ignored evidence of privatisation but doesn’t take into account a significant amount of coverage on this, including articles about Circle and Hinchingbrooke, the extent of private sector involvement under patient choice and the extension of that into community services.”

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