Seeking influence with nonsense – the case of the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland

By stewartb

This tale, as with so many on TuS, begins with the BBC. On 12 February, the corporation’s News website again provided a free promotional service to commercial newspapers sold in Scotland:

‘Scotland’s papers: ‘My son the trans rapist’ and GP closure warning’.

Prominent in the display of front pages is that of Scotland on Sunday (SoS) with this headline:

‘A third of GP surgeries could shut down in coming months’


We know that almost anything goes in newspapers sold in Scotland: their dominant political agenda is made crystal clear. And it seems the BBC has no interest in testing the credibility of newspaper claims: the amplification of gaslighting nonsense for wider public consumption is perfectly acceptable it seems to this public service – and publicly-funded – organisation. It has long lost adherence to a mission to inform and educate – in any ethical sense of these words. Well, at least in Scotland!

The latest example

The SoS article is based on a ‘survey of practice staff‘ conducted by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) in Scotland. We’re told:

  • a third of all Scottish GP surgeries are at risk of closure
  • 31.7% of ‘GP staff have stated that their practice was at risk of closing
  • there were 181 respondents to this survey.

The article quotes the RCGP Scotland’s Deputy Chair on concerns about the scale of future challenges facing general practice due to a ageing population. These are legitimate concerns across the UK and ones shared by many, including I’m certain the Scottish government. But is ‘revealing exclusively’ the results of this particular RCGP survey to be exploited by SoS the action of serious, trustworthy organisation? Let’s look more closely at the evidence.

A few observations

Firstly, a visit to the RCGP website today (12 February) finds no information on this ‘survey’. So members of the public cannot assess the significance of the news story. We cannot review the survey method (online, mail, phone); the time of the survey; the actual questions asked; the target population for the survey (when the newspaper refers to a survey of ‘practice staff’ is this just actual GPs?); how the sample was constructed (randomised invitations to participate or by self-selection) etc. (None of this may be of concern to SoS journalism, and apparently of no concern to the BBC’s provision of its free promotional service either.)

Secondly, how are the results of a survey of individuals being extrapolated to draw conclusions about number of ‘surgeries’ at risk i.e. about groupings of these individuals? Did the survey restrict responses to one respondent per surgery i.e. one response per practice?

Thirdly, does the number of respondents, namely 181, represent a large or a small proportion of the relevant population, regardless of its randomness or self-selection? Of course, if it is a sample constructed by self-selection AND it is a small sample relative to the relevant population then the findings are, statistically, worthless!

The RCGP’s reveal

The website of the RCGP has this in its news section from 29 November 2022: ‘Workforce survey data insufficient to measure the workload, workforce, and welfare crisis in general practice’.

Referencing a Scottish Government survey, RCGP Scotland Joint Chair is quoted: “We need reliable measurements, not estimates that are based upon on returns from a little over half of Scotlands GP practices.”  (I’m sure that a standard sample size calculator used for survey design would confirm that a sample size of ‘just over 50%’ would be pretty good – but that’s another topic.)


In ‘Notes to editors’, the website tells us: ‘RCGP Scotland represents a network of around 5,000 doctors in Scotland aiming to improve care for patients’.

About sample sizes!

These RCGP survey results – exploited for its front page by the SoS and then further amplified by the BBC as a public service – comes from a sample of just 181 (see above – assuming this is strictly only GPs). This is just 3.62% of the 5,000 GPs in RCGP’s own ‘network’.

And recall, only 31.7% of ‘GP staff‘ stated that their practice was at risk of closing. So the RCGP survey – which forms the basis of the SoS’ story and is then further amplified by the BBC as a public service – is based on responses from at most 57 out of 5,000 GPs, just 1.14% of the RCGP’s ‘network’ in Scotland!

And these 57 respondents may have been self-selecting and there may have been multiple responses from a single practice.

End note

The BBC, the publicly-funded news organisation with a (supposed) mission to inform and educate, aggregates and amplifies on a daily basis the front page headlines and story choices of the UK’s corporate media. It does this in several ways. This includes the flagship Today programme on Radio 4 giving airtime to headlines in its (uncritical) newspaper reviews. Arguably, this free BBC promotional service reaches its zenith on the BBC News website where front pages of the day’s newspapers are reproduced prominently.

But is the latter BBC service restricted to the Scotland section of the BBC News website? Is Scotland given special treatment by the BBC? Certainly on 12 February it did seem restricted. And so the feed of nonsense from this ‘survey’ by a Royal-labelled organisation that candidly should have higher standards is gladly exploited ‘exclusively’ by SoS and is then added to the drip, drip of the BBC’s gaslighting of Scotland.

The RCGP’s website states: ‘Our values describe the principles that guide us as we work to achieve our mission. We strive to demonstrate (among other things):

  • Integrity – we are honest, open-minded, ethical, evidence-based and fair.’ (my emphasis)

The questions arising for the RCGP – and for the BBC – may be different but they do seem obvious ones!


3 thoughts on “Seeking influence with nonsense – the case of the Royal College of General Practitioners Scotland

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