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James Bartholomew: The BBC buries bad news about the NHS every day


In 40 years of journalism,  few stories have disgusted me more than the one I am about to relate. It starts – but only starts – with a very premature baby being left to die in the sluice room of an NHS hospital.  It continues with a baby who died because the staff of an NHS hospital failed to identify her mother’s blood group.  Then there was a mother who died of a haemorrhage because the staff of an NHS hospital decided to take the view that her symptoms were due to mental illness. All these incidents and many more all took place in the ‘maternity care’ of the North Manchester General and Royal Oldham hospitals.

These many incidents took place because, according to an official report, there was an “embedded culture of not responding to the needs of a vulnerable women” in these NHS hospitals. The repetitive themes included failure to monitor basic vital signs, particularly heart rates. You can’t more basic than that. There was a poor staff attitude in these NHS hospitals. I am sorry to keep repeating that these things were happening in NHS hospitals but I do it to redress the balance. The BBC report of the event only mentions that the review of what happened was done by the NHS and does not mention that the hospitals which negligently caused the deaths of women and children were NHS ones.

The story of mothers and children dying and being permanently harmed by a hospital, of all places, at a time when they are most vulnerable is sickening enough. But I suggest there is still more to be shocked by in this story.

We only know that this happened at all because of the persistence of the Manchester Evening News. The newspaper heard that a report into these deaths by incompetence had been written. It asked the NHS trust for a copy of the report but it was given the run-around. It was “repeatedly sidestepped”. Then it was told that the report did not exist. This was a lie. The hospital has subsequently claimed it was a “ misunderstanding”, but given all the sidestepping that took place beforehand, I think it is reasonable to think that it was more probably a plain lie.

So we have hospitals which cause unnecessary deaths and permanent damage and then lie about the fact that there is a report into it. This is horrible and if it took place in the private sector the boss would be sacked and disgraced. But not in the NHS. There is so far no report of anyone at all being sacked in the NHS for the deaths. Actually, why should it just be a matter for sacking? This should be a matter for criminal investigation. There is reason to believe there may have been criminal negligence, perhaps amounting to manslaughter. But will such an investigation happen? It did not happen when hundreds of people died under NHS care in Mid-Staffordshire. No one was sacked. No one was prosecuted.

But have you noticed something about this whole story – something strange? It is akin to the dog in the night which didn’t bark. This story of death and incompetence in the NHS has not been  the lead item on the BBC news, the source of news on which more people rely than anything else.  It has not even been the second or third item. The BBC doesn’t really want to know about the story.

I have just checked BBC online and found the top, featured news stories as at 7pm on the 25th. There are 13 of them. No mention at all of these deaths – of the biggest, officially recognised NHS scandal since Mid-Staffordshire. Ranking above this major story is “ITV moves news for entertainment show” and “Black Friday Rush reported by retailers”. Yes, there is some brief BBC coverage of the story that appeared online yesterday. But it is absurdly short. It draws no conclusions. No work has been done.

Basically there is a rule in the media: deaths at the hands of the NHS don’t count. Permanent damage to people at the hands of the NHS doesn’t count. It is not really news. Contrast that with what happens when something goes wrong in a private hospital. When I was writing my book, The Welfare State We’re In, there was a huge scandal over one baby which had died in a private hospital. It was all over the newspapers and of course the BBC thought  it right to wonder whether this single death meant that there was something fundamentally wrong with private healthcare. But at the same time, I found that there had been a number of child deaths at NHS hospitals which had barely been reported at all. And never in any of the coverage did anyone suggest these deaths should bring into question whether there is something fundamentally wrong with the NHS. You see, NHS deaths don’t count. The NHS is sacred. The NHS must not be questioned.

And that is one of the sickening things about this story: the fact that people will turn a blind eye to unnecessary deaths  because they lack the moral courage to face up to the well documented fact that this is not an aberration. The NHS has a long record of causing deaths that would not happen in an average healthcare system. Only recently, there was a comprehensive report into this which revealed that over 17,000 people a year die in Britain each year who would not have died if they were in an ordinary healthcare system elsewhere. Of course, that report also barely managed to get into the news. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme was going to interview Owen Paterson, the MP who commissioned the report, but the programme dropped the interview at the last minute.

The BBC doesn’t want to know. It does not genuinely care about the news or the truth. It just likes to join in the moral cowardice.  It is sickening and shocking.

I was involved in the Paterson report and have talked to a number of doctors about the NHS this year. I have found an increasing willingness among them to agree that the NHS is not working. It is a bad system. It is creaking and barely managing. Actually, as the deaths in these hospitals show, it is not managing.

When will this country have the courage to face up to the truth? The NHS is a bad system and people are dying as a result. It needs to be changed. We need to face the facts and act to change the dire performance of the NHS causing babies and mothers to die. And we need a national broadcaster that is not  negligent –  failing in its public duty to  tell the truth.

James Bartholomew’s latest book, The Welfare of Nations, reviews different healthcare systems around the world with a view finding out one which works as well as is possible.

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James Bartholomew
James Bartholomew
James Bartholomew is a journalist and author of The Welfare of Nations

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