What is balance in terms of political reporting? Basically it is the presenting of both sides of an argument giving each equal time.
But there’s another type of ‘balance’ and it’s one I’ve referred to for several years. It’s the kind of balance that ensures the Scottish media find an equalising story to balance one which shows either Unionism or the Westminster elite in a poor light.
What do I mean? Well let’s take an example. Cast your mind back to the Westminster expenses scandal and the seemingly never ending list of MPs who were being exposed as cheats.
A virtual conveyor belt of Labour and Conservative MPs were appearing in the media on a daily basis. The sums of money involved were incredible reaching six figures in some cases. Westminster’s reputation was falling like a stone.
In Scotland the story wasn’t playing out well for Unionists. Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling was accused of ‘flipping’ his designated second home four times in as many years, earning tens of thousands of pounds in the process. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown was similarly accused.
The SNP stood ready to capitalise until a story emerged that appeared to suck the nationalists into the sleazy vortex. Alex Salmond had apparently claimed £800 for food.
The story was a godsend for the Unionist media in Scotland. The SNP, and in particular Salmond, were presented as being just as bad as the others. The damage to Unionism had been ‘balanced’.
On January 7th the Red Cross created headlines across the UK when it branded the English NHS as the equivalent of a Humanitarian Crisis. It was an unprompted remark out of the blue.
It generated headlines across the UK BBC. These headlines crossed the border. Scots were given a glimpse of what a real NHS crisis was. And the English NHS is indeed in trouble as the list below shows.
- On 10th January a leaked document revealed the shocking state of England’s Accident and Emergency service.
- On 11th January nurses claimed that conditions in the English NHS were the worst ever.
- On 11th January NHS England chief publicly contradicted PM Theresa May over funding claims.
- On 13th January it emerged four in ten hospitals in England had to declare a major alert because of unprecedented pressure.
- On 14th January Downing Street demanded English GPs commit to a seven day service or lose funding.
- On 15th January surgeons expressed concern over the number of cancer operations being cancelled in the English NHS due to “tremendous pressure”
The NHS in England is in serious trouble. Waiting times performances for A&E have plummeted as the graph to the right shows.
In Scotland we have our own issues in the NHS, but nowhere near anything being experienced south of the border.
Despite the relative success of the Scottish NHS the Scottish media, especially BBC Scotland, has pursued an agenda aimed at creating the perception of a similar crisis in Scotland.
Stories based on little more than number crunching Freedom of Information requests have spawned melodramatic headlines. Last Thursday the over-egging of a delay to four new trauma centres was the number one story for the corporation.
On Friday the top story involved an apology by a health board after five [FIVE!] expectant mothers were diverted to another nearby hospital.
The story was the number one item on that evening’s Reporting Scotland.
There is only so much you can do with attacks and press releases supplied by Unionist politicians. Despite a heroic effort, the Scottish media has been unable to replicate an equivalent of the ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ that crystalised the very real crisis in England … until now.
What do you do when you’re only source of lurid headlines about the Scottish NHS are ones handed to you by the Scottish Labour party or ones you generate yourself?
You invite a known critic onto a political programme and invite him to provide you with one.
That’s exactly what happened on Sunday. BBC Scotland’s Sunday Politics Show invited the head of the BMA Scotland onto the programme to talk about the Scottish NHS.
Peter Bennie has been issuing stark warnings about the Scottish NHS for years, usually calling for more funding. The BMA is the trade union for doctors so Bennie is only doing his job as their representative.
Last month Bennie provided the media with useful soundbites when he claimed the Scottish NHS was “struggling to cope”. He’d issued a similar warning almost exactly a year earlier.
Bennie is the go-to-guy if you want a melodramatic headline about the Scottish NHS. When he appeared on the Sunday Politics Show, that is exactly what he provided.
And the BBC of course ran with it. It was the top story on BBC Scotland’s online news page.
Bizarrely the story appeared before the Scottish government had the time to provide a response to Bennie’s claim. It did though feature a comment from Scottish Labour’s comedic MSP Anas Sarwar.
Not surprisingly, the story also made it onto Sunday’s Reporting Scotland.
The story was quickly picked up by the pro-Union Scotsman newspaper. It was the front page headline in Monday’s pro-Union Herald.
Already we see the predictable pattern emerging. The ‘balancer’ is the headline news all courtesy of BBC Scotland.
So we now have a ‘balancer’ for the English NHS’s ‘Humanitarian Crisis’ headline. In fact we have two. Reporting Scotland focused on Bennie’s ‘system breakdown’ phrase whilst BBC Scotland online went with ‘breaking point’.
Who else will run with the story? Well the Good Morning Scotland team will certainly read out The Herald headline tomorrow on the programme’s newspaper review slot. Whether they push the story throughout the programme remains to be seen.
This is balance, BBC Scotland style.
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