Unhealthy Media?

Is it because of cutbacks, or responding to party politics? Or is it just bad journalism? A. Balharry on the story behind the story of BBC Scotland and NHS Grampian.

On Wednesday, 16th January, morning I switched on the radio shortly after 6 and heard this in the Good Morning Scotland headlines …

BBC Scotland has found that 1000’s of patients in the North East are not being treated within the Scottish Government’s 18 week guarantee because they are waiting for diagnostic tests. As many as 3500 people at risk of bone fractures are waiting 8 months for a scan to detect osteoporosis at a clinic in Aberdeen – the Scottish Government said the situation was unacceptable and it would be raising the matter with health bosses as a matter of urgency.

Certainly dramatic stuff, though as is so often the case these days with the BBC in Scotland, all was not quite what it seemed – as anyone following events will realise, culminating in its top billing in yesterday’s FMQ’s.

As I listened and watched, throughout the day, it was pretty clear the story just didn’t hang together.


At 0735 on GMS Hayley Miller did a live two way (as it’s known) with, the author of the ‘exclusive’, Eleanor Bradford.

The main points that arose were as follows:

In a long preamble before getting to the ‘exclusive’ we heard about the ‘fiddling at NHS Lothian’ which resulted in the country wide audits, the problems at NHS Tayside, where patients were being marked down as unavailable when they were available and the weekend newspaper claims against Forth Valley, those subsequently denied.

So onto the heart of the matter, the facts according to Eleanor Bradford were:

People in NHS Grampian are having to wait 8 months for an appointment for a bone density scan because 1 of 2 scanners is broken. NHS Grampian say the 8 month wait is okay because scans don’t count. EB assured us these scans do count, then a series of statistics referring to the high percentage of people in the area marked down as unavailable which muddied the waters even further.

Then she said:

There’s been long standing scepticism, especially actually amongst the public over these waiting time targets and guarantees we keep hearing about – they always tend to think these targets don’t apply to them and I’m always coming on air saying they do apply to you – if you’re not getting treated within the government times question it – in actual fact the public seem to have been proven right – health boards have so many loopholes and get out clauses, though this wasn’t actually a get out clause, that for many people they do feel that the government may tell them they’re being treated quicker than ever but when they come to actually have treatment it doesn’t happen.

Then we were told the Scottish Government had reacted with ‘fury’, that they’d be taking it up as a matter of urgency, that NHS Grampian were looking at using mobile scanners.

The final pay off was:

NHS Grampian say their performance against national waiting time standards remains good and is currently sitting at 90%.

As a listener by now I really had no clue what the story was. Then around 815am an interview with Labour’s Jackie Baillie, this the opening question and answer:

Hayley Miller – What do you make of this situation at Grampian?

Jackie Baillie: “Well this is extraordinary, the fact that 3500 people are having their waiting time guarantee breached – weeks after NHS Grampian were given a clean bill of health by an internal audit and by the Scottish Government, and you know while these things should be monitored centrally by the Scottish Government it’s taken the BBC to break the story and surely the government should have known, surely this incorrect interpretation of these guidelines, it may well be a genuine misunderstanding but frankly it doesn’t help the people affected and it calls into question whether you can trust the SNP or NHS Grampian on waiting times.”

We were informed neither NHS Grampian or Scottish Government was available. By the lunchtime news the 3500 had become hundreds, what was going on?

At this stage I want to make clear I’m well aware the waiting list rules are complicated but I would expect a Health Correspondent to inform listeners not confuse. Since their introduction waiting time targets have always had exceptions, that of course does not suit sound bite politics, whoever is in power.

The response from NHS Grampian

So what did the subject of the story have to say? It turns out the initial BBC contact was made in the run up to Christmas. The spokesperson conceded to me that they, NHS Grampian, could have collated the accurate figures more swiftly, thus avoiding the 3500 headline – that overall waiting times for this scan are longer than they’d like BUT crucially the 18 week waiting time guarantee does not apply to all referrals. Some non urgent referrals may wait up to 8 months.

Yesterday they issued a detailed press release stating the following;

The scanner in question – remember we were told by the BBC it IS broken – was out of action Sept 2012 due to flooding but had been replaced in Nov 2012.

That the 18 week waiting time refers to 9 out of 10 of Referral To Treatment appointments, RTT’s for short – put simply those referred to a consultant. (See below)

There are currently 1900 patients on the waiting list for a scan. 550 of those on the list have been waiting more than 18 weeks BUT the vast majority of the 550 are GP referrals for a scan, discharged back to their GP, so 95% of these referrals are not covered by the 18 week RTT standard.

That they have never been confused about who is or who is not covered by the 18 weeks RTT standard.

There are no ‘hidden’ waiting lists and they are not being ‘fiddled’.

In total they have 3 scanners, 2 in Aberdeen and 1 in Elgin.

According to the official Government waiting time guidelines under the section exclusions to the 18 week rule;

Direct access referrals to Diagnostic Services where the referral is not part of a ‘Straight to Test’ referral pathway as there is no transfer of clinical responsibility to the Consultant-Led team

In addition to the NHS Grampian press release they also sent me the info sent to the BBC correspondent before Wednesday’s broadcast and later the same day.

It reveals that before the broadcast it was clear it was ‘some non urgent cases’ who were waiting up to 8 months, that the broken scanner was now operational, that 3500 was the total annual figure of all referrals, that they were waiting for up to date figures for the total number on the current waiting list.

And as to why they didn’t turn up on air on Wednesday, without accurate figures they turned it down.

As is common we’re now getting closer to the facts of the story in the days after.

It was an exclusive story based on one unnamed source so why not wait?

In Thursday’s, 17th, Reporting Scotland, an update from E Bradford –

(In reference to the initial story) it’s now ‘hundreds’ not ‘thousands’. That the current referral system is a loophole – that the patient who first spoke to her has been told she has to be referred by a consultant not a GP to qualify for the 18 weeks guarantee, that her case is urgent.

Well I understand it differently. A GP can refer you directly to a consultant (who then recommends treatment/tests) which gets you into the 18 week system, and urgent cases are seen within 2-6 weeks according to NHS Grampian.

As for ‘loophole’, well if anyone cares to read the guidelines, it is there in black and white. It’s hardly secret.

If, as I did, you put ‘NHS Grampian bone density test’ into the search engine of your choice you’ll find the relevant page, last updated October 2011, which could not be clearer, that routine waiting time is declared as ‘within 8 months’. I think we can assume this has been the case for a fair while, years maybe.

Hardly ideal, maybe NHS Grampian needs to get more scanners, maybe the patient in question is being given inaccurate information by her/his GP, maybe people are confused when they hear talk of 18 and 12 week lists given there are a number of exceptions and, as I’ve said soundbite politics don’t help. Nobody comes out of this well.

But shouldn’t the BBC do better?


Comments (17)

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  1. David McCann says:

    Remember this is the BBC which for more than half a century, allowed Savile to present their programmes whilst he abused children, hospital patients, some of which were terminal. When they were told of this, they not only did nothing, they actually covered it up, hoping it would go away. Now they report it as ‘the man who deceived a nation’ . No mention of the fact that it was our national broadcaster who was complicit in that deception.
    Frankly, the BBC are a national disgrace.

  2. The BBC do “DO” better in the doing sense they are trying to give the independence movement a DOING!

    1. Paul Carline says:

      Exactly – politically biased reporting from the BBC. Same old same old … It’s against all their stated principles and commitments … but there’s no watchdog with teeth to bring them to order. Something to bear in mind for a Scottish constitution ….

  3. Well AS laid into the Labour Party on THursday at FMQ’s. He should stick it to them even harder next week and demand an apology!

    1. David McCann says:

      Aye. The FM should remind Lamont of her attempt to wrong foot him in the chamber, by referring to a rape case that never was.
      She had picked up on a newspaper story which the Evening Times subsequently issued an apology for, following the Crown Office issuing a note that they had no knowledge of a case as described by Lamont.
      Needless to say, no such apology was given by Lomont to the FM or to the Scottish Parliament.
      14 minutes 50sec in

  4. Doug Daniel says:

    Every time the media has to correct something, they should have to say “earlier we said blah blah blah, in actual fact it is bleurgh bleurgh bleurgh…” The BBC keeps getting away with these episodes of sloppy journalism because once it’s out there, then it’s out there, and they don’t have to be accountable for it. They can just slyly modify the story in later news bulletins as if it was what they’d said all along.

    The problem with the media is this obsession with being first to break the news. I don’t care about speed, I care about accuracy. Broadcast news should be treated like the print media, in that you have one chance to get it right. It’s not good enough that they seem to get away with going “right, put this out, and if we find out it’s not right, we’ll just edit it as we go along.”

  5. Pete Macleod says:

    Ah, but is that not simply the BBC Scotland at its finest? On the face of it what you saw was a blatant disregard for the guidelines. And until I acquired a better understanding of their standards (or the lack of them) that’s what I would have heard. Now I know better and all I could actually hear was a fairly faint sound of ‘don’t take anything at face value.’

    Proved right again, as it happens, as the figures changed and the reason for a back log was made clearer.

  6. Juteman says:

    It isn’t sloppy journalism.

  7. piobaire says:

    Mizzes Millar and Bradford are notorious for spinning anti-SG stories. I remember seeing Ms Bradford, off camera, pulling faces at Jackie Bird, when Nicola Sturgeon was making comment on another non-issue, a year or so ago. It’s the BBC for goodness sake. A very close friend (“Soft” left but not an independence supporter) who works at Pacific Quay said, “You have to be a card carrier (Labour Party), to get anywhere, here”. I think she was pretty close to the mark. Ultimately, who is going to take them to task over this. This sort of stuff is going to happen with increasing frequency as 2014 approaches.

    1. muttley79 says:

      That story about Jackie Bird reminded me of her comments about Salmond. She basically said she hated him. Also, you have the well-known Labour supporter, Kirsty Wark, going on holiday with Jack McConnell, and being surprised at the criticism she got. Then there was/is Glenn Campbell…If we get a Yes vote I would be surprised if we did not hear more stories about BBC Scotland’s love-in with the Scottish Labour Party (Unionist division). BBC Scotland is like their darling Scottish Labour Party, bereft of ambition, integrity and vision, and close to self-loathing towards their own nation. They survive on a diet of murders and football. They have no really interest in their own country.

  8. DougtheDug says:

    One of the problems of the media in Britain today, and this is especially true of the broadcast media, is that they don’t do news they do stories.

    Stories don’t really need facts they just need shock, outrage, a crisis and sound-bites from someone. News has become entertainment and stopped being news. News needs time and staff for research and analysis which translates to a need for money and stories can be done on the cheap.

    I gave up on the BBC as an authoritative news provider a long time ago. Once I got access to the internet the failings of BBC news were quite evident. It’s not that they did outright false reporting, it’s that what was left out of the news story was often as important as the bits they put in and they never questioned the government line especially if the UK or US was involved in a foreign conflict.

    Until recently the rules of the establishment in Scotland meant that if you were part of it you were either a member or linked to the Labour party and that was as true for the BBC as for anyone. The Labour party has taken a battering over the last few years but the BBC is pretty much the same as ever.

    So we’ve got the problem in Scotland that we don’t get news from the BBC we get stories and those stories are never going to be either supportive of the SNP or put the Labour party in a bad light.

  9. Don’t know for sure if this will link – I need a tutorial on how to copy/paste etc.
    Anyway, it’s an illuminating piece, coming from a US citizen, based in Japan – interesting to see how ‘outsiders’ view what’s happening here.

  10. campaign for balanced broadcasting on facebook.

  11. Barontorc says:

    No, it isn’t sloppy journalism because the story was pushed on the Wednesday night by EB and followed with the Baillie interview. It carried on with Newsnight on Wednesay. It was reported on GMS again on Thursday morning and then raised by Lamont at FMQ at noon. All of this following the well trod path of the BBC doing the lead in work in planned good time for Lamont’s questions to AS.

    The BBC offence was created by their subsequent reporting of the issue AFTER the official Scottish Government response from AS during FMQ. They continued with the original line with no reference or qualification regarding the explanation given by AS. That is not sloppy journalism that is misinforming by the public broadcasting authority.

    Similarly, when will it be recognised that parliamentary priviledge only exists within the walls of Parliament and Hansard. To later report unacceptable language, comment and other which would be considered as slander if used out-with this priviledged place, will become in itself slander and libel. Perhaps the BBC and MSM should be very careful in broadcasting this material verbatim or they are indeed implicated in such defamation.

  12. Barontorc –
    That’s a real mind-boggler, one I’ve never really given much thought to – if the MPs discuss something, and even if it’s televised, carried live by The Daily Politics or whatever other media, shouldn’t we be cautioned that the MPs are, in effect, having a discussion which is not, so-to-speak, ‘real’. It is happening, for sure – we can see it, hear it, read about it in the Hansard sometime later. But what we’re actually witnessing is an elite (albeit, an ‘elected’ elite) exercising a privilege unavailable to voters. It raises big questions about ‘freedom of speech’ in this country – on the face of it, some appear to have much more freedom than others. Sadly, those holding the greatest freedom seem averse to using it.

    1. Barontorc says:

      ianb…, I am interested in the concept that says, ‘what’s said in parliament stays in parliament’ since that can be the sole reason to permit such freedom to say what you damn well like and for the recipients of such largesse to feel protected that such calumny is held to be in camera, so to speak. It was for a bygone age without live broadcasting and the potential for less than impartial editing, but certainly it’s a queer loophole to exist in this day and age.

      The Labour mp’s farce that was to become the Section 30 debate at Westminster was widely reported and broadcast to give enormous exposure to the ill-fitting comments raging that day. Can’t be right – from whatever platform you favour.

  13. Brenda Steele says:

    I now take the BBC Broadcasts with a good helping of salt. The thing that irritates me most is the way an early interview in the morning is edited differently throughout the day to be more “newsworthy” (i. e. sexed up). It becomes something totally unrecognisable – completely distorted by “clever” snip and cut editing. If I’m interested enough I go back and listen to the original, but if not I assume that it has been doctored out of all recognition.

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