So that day has come round again, the one when NHS England publishes statistics on A&E waiting times for the previous month. It’s the time when we can test the consistency or otherwise of the BBC’s editorial policies and the choices editors make across the nations of the UK, as exemplified by the content of its News website which is amenable to direct comparison. And yes it does get ‘tedious’ because the BBC is nothing if not consistent in its differential practices month after month after month!
We know well that BBC Scotland’s coverage of the weekly releases of A&E waiting times in Scotland is highly politicised – news articles appear on the website’s politics as well as its main sections for Scotland. We know that much space is given over to quotes from all opposition parties in Holyrood – given proactively to or requested by the BBC we can’t tell. And there has been a clear message amplified by BBC Scotland – it’s all the Scottish Government’s fault and the Cabinet Secretary for Health should resign immediately.
The coverage of A&E performance in Scotland focuses on waiting times for the MAIN A&E departments (equivalent to Type 1 departments in England) and not for ALL A&E departments. Recently there has been a trend towards highlighting individual health boards or individual hospitals where performance against the 4 hour standard is substantially lower than the national average. A more impactful, negative message?
For NHS England, the BBC does things very differently. I’ll use the statistics published today (8 December) for the month of November to illustrate.
Throughout Radio 4 news bulletins today and on the BBC News website, we’ve been told some variant of ‘one in three’ patients are waiting more than four hours in A&E’. But this is what the official figures record (with my emphasis):
• ‘68.9% of patients were seen within 4 hours in ALL A&E departments this month compared to 69.3% in October 2022, 74.1% in November 2021, and 81.4% in November 2019. THIS IS THE LOWEST REPORTED PERFORMANCE SINCE the collection began. The 95% standard was last met in July 2015.’
•’ 54.5% of patients were seen within 4 hours in TYPE 1 A&E departments compared to 54.8% in October 2022, 61.9% in November 2021 and 71.3% in November 2019. THIS IS THE LOWEST REPORTED PERFORMANCE SINCE THE COLLECTION BEGAN.
The BBC News website had an article today with this headline: ”A&E is absolute chaos – I spent 15 hours on a trolley’. OK a damning headline but the article has nothing on the 54.5% performance statistic: it sticks with ‘1 in 3’. By contrast, the focus in a press statement issued by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine on these latest statistics is clear: it ONLY refers to the 54.5% figure for the main (Type 1) departments. Why does the BBC opt to use a ‘1 in 3’ statistic: why focus on ALL rather than the MAIN A&E departments instead? Less ‘negative’? (Still, at least the frequency of BBC ‘exposures’ of the state on NHS England is increasing. Now to bad to be ignored?)
There are a few other things about the BBC News website’s article referred to above. It doesn’t appear on the main ‘UK’ news page; it doesn’t appear on the main ‘England’ page; it doesn’t appear on the main ‘Politics’ page. It appears ONLY on the ‘Health’ page – and even here it has been quickly relegated from a prominent position. In the article there is ZERO politicisation: there is NO MENTION of ‘worst on record’. (Recall that BBC Scotland has in the past had a headline with ‘second worst on record’!)
Even a later article on the BBC News website entitled ‘Nurses bitten and screens smashed – life in A&E’. This has a reference to: ‘A network of regional “war rooms” has also been created’. This only appears on the ‘Health’ page and again with ZERO politicisation.
The BBC News website presently has an article on a regional (Humberside) section with this headline: ‘Hull hospitals worst in England for A&E waits, NHS figures show’.
We’re told that: ‘ In November, 58.2% of patients at Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust sites waited over four hours to be admitted or discharged.’ So 41.8% were treated within the 4 hour standard.
But the official NHS England performance statistics reveal that in November there were actually 10 hospital trusts with an even worse performance against the 4 hour standard. These ranged from 29.8% (Barking, Havering And Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust) to 41.1% (The Shrewsbury And Telford Hospital NHS Trust). Can’t trust the BBC even for accuracy?
Finally, to cement the evidence on contrasting editorial choices, the following headline also appears on the BBC News website today: ”NHS Wales: Hospital staff ‘in tears’ over A&E pressures. In contrast to the BBC’s coverage of NHS England’s A&E, the Welsh article appears on the main Wales page plus the Wales politics page. However, despite reporting on lengthy ambulance and A&E waits in Wales, BBC Wales’ editors choose to have ZERO politicisation!
Footnote: BBC Wales has a long tradition of not criticising their Labour Government. See: https://talkingupscotlandtwo.com/?s=Wales