Agonising Auntie - the BBC and the NHS

Despite widespread and continued criticism of their coverage of the NHS dismantlement in England, the Beeb seem unwilling to change course.

Trystan Morris-Dafydd
2 April 2013

Fans of obscure trivia will doubtlessly have heard of Ernest Vincent Wright who, in 1939, performed the remarkable feat of writing a 50,000 word novel without once using the letter ‘e’.1 Over 70 years later, it would seem a similar endeavour is taking place over at the Beeb newsroom, where hacks have been painstakingly penning their coverage of NHS issues without using the word ‘privatisation’. A bit of office buffoonery, perhaps?

An in-depth investigation by openDemocracy co-editor Oliver Huitson last autumn would suggest otherwise.2 What Huitson’s investigation showed was that the Beeb had failed to report the proposed NHS reforms in any thing like an unbiased fashion – damning since, by the Beeb’s founding principles, all news “must be treated with due impartiality, giving due weight to events, opinion and main strands of argument.”3

Skip forward to the 28th March 2013, however, and it would seem lessons are being learnt. In an article entitled “The changing health service”4 the Auntie decided to break with the tradition of skirting around the P-word with the brazen (by BBC standards) subheading “Private sector takeover?”. Could this small gesture of honesty on the part of the Beeb be an atonement for past sins?

On closer examination of the article, it would appear not.

The piece, written by Adam Brimelow, opens with a fresh dollop of PR-perfumed codswallop which seeks to give credence to the idea that the experience of privatised healthcare has been a positive one, using little more than a folksy anecdote:

A community matron with the firm, Carol Connelly, was anxious when Virgin Care took over. She was fearful that the switch to a private operator might lead to things being done “on the cheap”.


But that is not how it has worked out so far.


“We’ve been very lucky in that when we’ve identified areas where we need equipment, such as ECG [electrocardiograph] machines, money has become available to buy this equipment and enable us to do the job”.

All very well and good, then, it would seem. Although slagging off your current employer in the national media has never been a good career move, safe to say that Ms Connelly would have to be stark raving mad to languish anything other than praise upon Virgin Care. One cannot help but wonder if a more systematic appraisal of people’s experiences of privatised healthcare might have come out smelling a little less rosy.

In keeping with the Beeb’s habit of eliciting a vox pop from some harmless and politically-naïve Joe Public in the name of ‘balance’, we are then treated to the essentially indifferent opinion of an elderly patient, whose views are hack-sawed down to a neat little two-line soundbite, and carefully sandwiched in between gushing coverage of Virgin Care.

For example, did you know that Virgin Care has a ‘head of innovation’? Well, you do now. According to Virgin, patients in Surrey will experience something of a techno-orgasm with the introduction of iPads enabling staff to “work more efficiently”. What these tech gimmicks have to do with the public/private debate is unclear, but it would appear (according to the BBC, at least) that introducing a profit motive into healthcare opens up glorious opportunities to use gadgets and gizmos. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we can look forward to Virgin paramedics whizzing about on jet-packs.

Like a naughty schoolboy who has just been caught smoking, our trusted Beeb hack dutifully flips to the anti-privatisation camp in search of balance:

Dr Jacky Davis, from the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, says private firms have a big advantage in bidding for business.


“The private sector – their expertise is in winning government contracts. That’s what they do. And they have backrooms full of lawyers. They have very deep pockets to spend on tendering for NHS services.”

They continue:

Despite repeated government assurances, [Davis] fears companies will be able to cherry-pick activities where they can make money, such as elective surgery. (emphasis my own)

The suggestion here is that Davis is wrong, loopy even, to think NHS reforms might be ineffectual in keeping the profit motive in check. Doesn’t she understand the government have repeatedly made it clear they won’t? The Beeb are pre-empting doctors with government rebuttals, no less.5

While the problem of private companies being able to outbid the NHS is of course an important issue, the narrowing of anti-privatisation campaigners’ views to a single issue located within the post-reform healthcare landscape serves to ensure that no substantive opposition to healthcare privatisation is heard. The main thrust of the article is essentially a puff piece for Virgin Care, with claims of greater efficiency and “listening to staff” going completely unchallenged.

Still, there’s no need to panic since even the boffins aren’t sweating it. Professor Chris Ham, head of the King’s Fund, “doubts that the change will be dramatic”. What the article fails to mention, however, is that Ham has been a staunch advocate of the work of California-based private health consortium Kaiser Permanente. According to a 2010 investigation by Stewart Player and Colin Leys, Ham was “instrumental in setting up a number of ‘Kaiser beacon’ projects within the NHS to introduce and ‘normalise’ Kaiser’s aims and methods among NHS managers.”6

The neutrality of the health care “think-tank” Ham directs is similarly questionable. The King’s Fund’s board of trustees is chaired by Penny Dash, an advisor to the NHS, independent health care providers, pharmaceutical companies and private equity groups.7 She is also an advisor for McKinsey & Co, the US-based consultancy firm which has played a key role in pushing NHS privatisation!8

Elsewhere on planet Beeb that day, hacks saw fit quote Jennifer Dixon, CEO of The Nuffield Trust, yet another healthcare “think-tank”.9 What the article failed to mention, however, was that Nuffield’s board includes one Nicolaus Henke, chairman of, er, the McKinsey Health Institutes.10 A toast to your health dear Auntie!

This article first appeared at Cod Philosophy

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gadsby_(novel)
  2. http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourbeeb/oliver-huitson/how-bbc-betrayed-nhs-exclusive-report-on-two-years-of-censorship-and-distorti
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/page/guidelines-impartiality-principles/
  4. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21887554
  5. Many thanks to Oliver Huitson for this point.
  6. http://www.redpepper.org.uk/dismantling-the-nhs/
  7. http://www.kingsfund.org.uk/about-us/whos-who/penny-dash
  8. http://www.redpepper.org.uk/mckinseys-unhealthy-profits/
  9. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-21878577
  10. http://www.mckinsey.com/client_service/healthcare_systems_and_services/people/nicolaus_henke

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