Every day, researcher Éoin Clarke runs a check on the number of parts of the NHS that have been 'carved up and offered to privateers that day. The sad news is that the NHS sell off is indeed accelerating.' Clarke has identified 81 NHS contracts worth a total of more than £2 billion that are set to be privatised, or have recently been so. He adds that there are over 2,300 'chunks of the NHS that private companies can now bid for.' Amazingly, 'cuddly' Richard Branson's Virgin now controls 18 NHS contracts across 15 English counties.
Consider just one example: Lord Waldegrave, who was Secretary of State for Health from 1990-1992. He is an adviser to UBS Investment Bank whose healthcare division has earned the firm over $1 billion since 2005. He has a poor voting record in the House - less than 8 per cent of votes in his time there - but he did manage to vote on the Health and Social Care Bill. He is Director of Biotech Growth Trust plc which is managed by Orbimed, the world's largest healthcare-dedicated investment firm, with approximately $5 billion in assets under management.
Robertson rightly points to 'the network of vested interests that runs between Parliament and the private healthcare industry. This cosy, toxic relationship,' he warns, 'threatens not only the future of the NHS but that of democracy in the UK.'
'the companies who have lobbied for the NHS to be privatised have taken one giant leap into its eventual dismantling.'
Although clearly a scandal, it is no surprise that:
'Our politicians sit on the boards, they own the companies, they are the directors. [...] They are meant to be public servants, yet the evidence points towards them serving another element of society, one that is hidden behind corporate confidentiality and "Chatham House" rules.'
Along with the NHS, the BBC is supposed to epitomise the best of British institutions. The BBC has a duty, enshrined in its Charter, to report objectively on stories of national and international interest. The NHS affects every man, woman and child in the country. And yet we suspect very few members of the public realise what has just happened to their health care system.
The BBC mostly failed to cover the story, and otherwise offered coverage heavily biased in favour of the government’s perspective. On the very day the bill passed into law, the tag line across the bottom of BBC news broadcasts said ‘Bill which gives power to GPs passes’. The assessment could have come from a government press release, spin that has been rejected by an overwhelming majority of GPs. The BBC has also repeatedly failed to cover public protests, including one outside the Department of Health which stopped the traffic in Whitehall for an hour.
It is nigh-on impossible for Media Lens, with our meagre resources, to closely monitor the prodigious output of BBC television and radio news; even on a single topic. But one activist who has been following the NHS story closely over an extended period sent us this last month:
‘For the past two years there has been so little coverage of this bill that even as some were desperately fighting to stop it - through e-petitions, lobbying campaigns and even demonstrations - many people did not appear to be even aware of it. I have been on a demonstration in which people sat down in the road in Whitehall, outside the Department of Health and blocked the traffic, yet this was not mentioned at all on the news.
‘When the BBC have reported on the bill they have been sparse with their explanations of its implications or the reasons why so many - including most medical professionals - have objected to it. They have tended to limit their comments to those of the type “Some people say it's privatisation” without explaining why or exploring the issue.
‘There have not been - as we might have expected for so momentous a change - debates on the Today Programme, on BBC Newsnight, or blackground analysis programmes, with politicians being challenged and questioned on the policy. Radio 4 ran a programme at 8pm [The Report, on March 22, 2012] which appeared to be very biased in favour of the bill, with opposing views not adequately represented. Contrast this programme with this article by Hackney Keep Our NHS Public (KONP)
‘Whatever one's views on the Health and Social Care bill, surely such large scale changes which may affect the health of so many, should have been widely reported and debated, especially when you consider that the coalition government was not elected and did not put this issue in their manifestos.’ (Email, name withheld, March 23, 2012)
Why did we never see a BBC television news report like this one from RT: ‘UK govt bill opens up NHS to private profiteering’?
Dear BBC - Where Were You When The Tories Dismantled The NHS?
On the day the NHS bill was passed, insightful and bitter public comments on the BBC's paltry coverage were tracked by Isobel Weinberg on Twitter:
‘As the sun sets on the #NHS isn't it great to know what a nice dress Kate Middleton was wearing. Thanks #tvnews #BBC #ITV #media’
‘Did anything happen to the #NHS today, OECD leading health system? Who IS making these editorial decisions? #BBCnews @BBCNews @BBCNewsnight’
‘Dear #BBC where were you when the #Tories dismantled the #NHS?’
‘Just checked to see and tis indeed true not a word on the NHS bill on the BBC – unbelievable.’
‘It is our arrogance that makes us mistrust every other state-run media but believe ours to be independent and free. #NHS #BBC’
And Clive Peedell, deputy chair of the Royal College of Consultants, observed:
‘England's biggest ever robbery took place today - The #NHS was stolen from under the noses of the public by the Health & Social Care Act.’
Author and journalist Marcus Chown, a consultant for New Scientist, has been valiantly documenting examples of protests against the bill that have made no inroads into corporate news coverage (Chown’s wife works for the NHS). These include:
Unreported ‘Drop the NHS bill’ protest on Mothers’ Day in Parliament Square, London.
Unreported doctors’ ‘Drop the NHS bill’ protest.
Unreported ‘Drop the NHS bill’ sit-down protest that blocked traffic for an hour in Whitehall, London.
Unreported ‘Drop the NHS bill’ candle-lit vigil, St Thomas’ Hospital, London.
Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University, has challenged the BBC, as have many others. She rejects the standard BBC brush-off that the corporation has given ‘extensive coverage’ to the bill. Professor Bishop points to ‘a remarkable disconnect between what was being reported on BBC News outlets and what was concerning many members of the public’.
So why has the BBC coverage been so appalling?
The BBC's Private Healthcare Perks And The Lord Living It Large
Some have suggested that a possible factor explaining BBC indifference is that many BBC staff don’t themselves depend on the NHS. The BBC actually spends millions of pounds on private healthcare for its staff. Under a Freedom of Information request, it was revealed that the BBC shelled out almost £2.2 million of public money on private healthcare for several hundred senior BBC staff between 2008-2010.
The Daily Telegraph reports that last year 506 BBC managers benefited from the £1,500-a-year perk. When challenged, the BBC responded that this is ‘common industry practice’ for senior managers, ‘although the BBC has recently announced this benefit will no longer be made available to new senior managers'. (‘Medical insurance for 500 BBC bosses’, Daily Telegraph, March 12, 2012; not found online). No word, though, on existing senior BBC managers having to forgo their private health insurance.
There are also ties that link BBC bosses with private health companies. Recall that the BBC is managed by an Executive Board while the BBC Trust is there to ensure that standards such as impartiality and fairness are maintained in the public interest.
Consider Dr Mike Lynch OBE who sits on the BBC's Executive Board. Lynch is a non-executive director of Isabel Healthcare Ltd, a private company specialising in medical software. He is also a director of Autonomy PLC, a computing company whose customers include Isabel Healthcare, Blue Cross Blue Shield (a health insurance firm), AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and several other pharmaceutical companies.
He is also on the advisory board of Apax Partners, which describes itself as ‘one of the leading global investors in the Healthcare sector’ and has invested over €2.5 billion in the area. These medical interests all stand to gain from the new legislation. Is this the resumé of a man who would really insist on impartial reporting of controversial ‘reforms’ of the NHS? (For more info click here.)
The Chairman of the BBC, Lord Patten of Barnes, is similarly tied up in private medical and financial interests. Lord Patten is a member of the European Advisory Board for a private equity investment company called Bridgepoint. Alan Milburn, the former Secretary of State for Health under Tony Blair, is chair of Bridgepoint’s board. The company has been involved in 17 healthcare deals over recent years. Its current investments in the UK total more than £1.1 billion.
One company acquired by Bridgepoint for £414 million in July 2010 is the residential care company Care UK. As mentioned in Part 1 of this alert, Care UK chairman Jonathan Nash donated £21,000 in November 2009 to run Tory Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s personal office. Further transactions for Bridgepoint and a private healthcare company involved Alliance Medical who sold the MRI scan company for £600 million to Dubai International LLC in 2007.
Lord Patten was appointed to the Lords in 2005 and, before being accepted as the head of the BBC, was urged to cut back on his business activities. However this didn’t happen, and in addition to his advisory role in Bridgepoint, he remains a stakeholder of energy giant EDF, advisor to telecom business Hutchison Europe and a member of the advisory board of BP.
None of this is intended to suggest that BBC managers have been crudely leaning on BBC editors to suppress news coverage of opposition to the dismantling of the NHS. We are aware of no evidence to that effect. But the interests and priorities of senior managers certainly have a more subtle impact on the culture of the organisation beneath them. As even the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (no radical) once told us:
'If you ask anybody who works in newspapers, they will quite rightly say, "Rupert Murdoch", or whoever, "never tells me what to write", which is beside the point: they don't have to be told what to write.'
The observation, of course, generalises to the broadcast media. And anyway, surely the interlocking links between politics, the media and private financial and industrial interests should be exposed and widely debated.
A strong additional factor is likely that the Hutton Inquiry fiasco generated a climate of fear at the BBC that deters journalists from challenging the government too strongly. We will return to this point below.
Dear Nick Robinson - About That Email...
Marcus Chown recently highlighted an extraordinary email that he received from a BBC employee. The email read:
‘The BBC under/non-reporting of the opposition to the bill is even more of a mystery after I’ve read over the BBC news briefs myself (I don’t work in news, but anyone can see the news briefs). There are pages and pages of text on the opposition to the bill. Someone, or some people have clearly gone to a great deal of effort enumerating the objections, documents that have existed for over a month, and there is a long and comprehensive (and regularly updated list) outlining the latest views of all the professional bodies. All the fact checking and detail anyone needs to run a detailed story on the opposition to the bill is there, and there are no official restrictions on reporting it, but somehow it still isn’t happening. I can’t make sense of it.’ (Email to Marcus Chown, Twitter, March 23, 2012, 2.05pm)
This prompted us to email Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, on April 17, 2012. He had previously written to us to say he was investigating ‘BBC impartiality’ on related issues:
‘I am looking solely at my own patch ie issues of domestic politics.’ (Email, April 3, 2012)
We reminded him of this and asked:
‘Presumably, then, you will examine the evidence that the BBC failed to report impartially on the Health and Social Care Bill?
‘There are many serious and reputable sources that you could ask, not least the 27 professional medical bodies in this country who opposed the Bill, such as the Royal College of GPs, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nurses.
‘You could also approach Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at Oxford University. She has challenged the BBC about its supposed “extensive coverage” of the NHS bill. She describes “a remarkable disconnect between what was being reported on BBC News outlets and what was concerning many members of the public”.
‘Or Liz Panton, a speech and language therapist who has worked for the NHS for over 30 years, who says:
“The BBC seems completely out of touch with the general mood of public opinion and widespread fear and anxiety about the changes to our way of life as a result of the NHS Bill.”
‘And what about apparent conflicts of interest at the BBC? Will you investigate the evidence?
‘“BBC chief Lord Patten of Barnes, Bridgepoint and the Conflicts of Interest”
‘When you have a moment, could you possibly give us your response, please? Many thanks.’
Alas, as so often, we received the familiar BBC response of no-response.
So why the BBC behaved in the way it did over the NHS bill remains an intriguing puzzle. It is not a complete mystery, of course, given that the BBC is dependent on government money (i.e. public money), and given that the UK government sets the BBC Charter and determines who runs the organisation. As we saw with the government’s deceptions on Iraq’s non-existent WMD, and the subsequent fallout over BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s reporting (both the BBC Chairman and Director-General resigned), there is always the threat of repercussions if the state broadcaster becomes too critical of the state. Whether any actual high-level decision was taken at the BBC to adopt a government-friendly line on the NHS will never be known unless whistleblowers speak out. Much more likely is that no executive 'decision' was required and that this has simply become the default mode of BBC reporting.
We asked Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent for over ten years, if his insider perspective could shed some light on the BBC's performance. He began by candidly admitting that UK health care 'is outside my area of normal close perusal'. But he then continued with his usual, splendid honesty:
'My first observations are, though, to say that I don't think it has much to do with Chris Patten, unless the BBC has become an even more sinister place than I thought. He would not interfere in coverage decisions as such, and I don't think even BBC news execs and editors would be so puerile or pusillanimous as to tailor their coverage of the NHS outrage to suit his perceived sensitivities.
'Second, what has happened at the BBC is that (as with Israel, another area where powerful interests and government forces operate), especially since the kicking it got over Iraq from Alistair Campbell/Tony Blair in 2004, it has become an institution that does not like any longer to take anyone on or to challenge received ideas or vested interests or risk being seen to take sides. There is no backbone left in current affairs programmes; news operates on the principle that X says Y and Y says X and this adversarial knockabout is a substitute for real analysis and questioning. (Even before Hutton, there was no proper, analytical reporting of Northern Ireland until long after the Good Friday Agreement had made it to some extent history.)
'In this climate of fear, which is what basically it is, reporters and producers know what they have to do to get on air. Leave well alone, report the surface, filter any controversies through studio debates and Question Time, arenas in which, of course, "balance" can be seen to be being practised.
'I don't suppose the medical health bandits sit on the BBC's shoulders in the same way the Zionist lobby does, it's a different kind of thing.
'But it's part of the argument why the BBC fails over Israel/Palestine and reports the US so blandly. The organisation is big and rich and potentially powerful, but it is scared, of everybody and does not wish to rattle any important cages in case something nasty leaps out.' (Email, April 24, 2012)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Please write to:
Helen Boaden, BBC Head of News
Nick Robinson, BBC political editor
If you choose this route, your case will be strengthened if you argue that BBC news reporting breaches BBC editorial guidelines. The relevant general principles are 4.2.1, 4.2.2, 4.2.3, 4.2.4. Of particular note here are: 4.4.2 and 4.4.9.
Please consider becoming involved in campaigns to save the NHS, e.g. 38 Degrees
Please copy us in on any exchanges with journalists or forward them to us later at:
We would like to thank Marcus Chown and Media Lens readers for assistance in identifying key points regarding the NHS bill and lack of coverage.