When 150,000 extra deaths in England isn’t news

Last week we covered a report in the British Medical Journal that suggested that,

Tory healthcare cuts cause 152,141 additional deaths in England

We did so not only because it suited our anti-austerity agenda, but also because we thought the story came from a very reliable source. It was a massive claim but it was a claim backed by highly educated scientists carrying out research at some of the most eminent universities in the world.

Turns out that the BBC did not agree with us.

What should have been a massive public interest story was hidden from most of the population. The BBC justified this by saying.

Our audiences expect the BBC to provide impartial and well-sourced news they can trust. We carefully considered whether the BMJ Open study merited reporting including verifying it with other sources and on this occasion, we concluded it did not. The Science Media Centre, an independent body that peer reviews scientific news, has raised concerns that the conclusions were “highly speculative” and should be treated with “caution”.

The main excuse for not reporting on the story seems to have been based on the advice of the Science Media Centre(SMC).

The ‘independence’ and motives of the SMC as an organisation have been looked into elsewhere. Not only are they funded by many multi-national companies, they also receive a substantial amount of cash from the British Government.

SMC funding

No conflict there then

A number of scientists have carried out studies which raise concerns as to the SMC’s impartiality.

Finding that many of those who provide expertise on behalf of the SMC are not experts and that the bulk of the work carried out by the SMC favours particular corporate sectors. Certainly, the head of the organisation, Fiona Fox has no scientific background and has a history of gullibility.

Let’s forget all of that though, let’s say that the SMC is correct in this instance.

Let’s say that the conclusions of the BMJ report are highly speculative and should be treated with caution.

The key word here is ‘conclusions’. In other words the interpretation of the results. The actual headline figure on the extra-deaths was not challenged by the experts consulted by the SMC.

To quote SMC scientist, Prof. Martin Roland, Emeritus Professor of Health Services Research, University of Cambridge:

Mortality has been declining in most developed nations for several decades. Commentators have previously noted that deaths have stopped declining in the UK while they continue to decline in other countries. This study suggests that a change happened to cause deaths to stop declining around 2014. This is likely to be a correct finding.

What the SMC experts take umbrage to is the conclusion of blaming the deaths on reduced Health Service spending.

The SMC experts state there could be other causes. That is fair enough. That is what I would call a potentially interesting and informative news segment for intelligent adults.

A responsible news organisation would report on the paper with caveats. The increased death-rate is a big story but the reason for those deaths is something that could be debated. The BBC could have interviewed the scientists who wrote the paper and those who disagree with their conclusions. Balance could have been provided while still reporting the fact that we have a major problem that nobody disagrees with.

Surely that would be a sensible way to handle the report?

The thing I don’t get about the BBC approach is that they do often report on partially and badly sourced news.

We have talked about this recently with regards to political reporting. Often they report on anything that comes out of a politicians mouth regardless of how ridiculous it is and then they provide balance at some point by letting the other side say something equally ridiculous. The Brexiteers’ £350 million for the NHS claim and George Robinson suggesting that an independent Scotland will be cataclysmic are examples of this that pop to mind; but it happens every-day.

Unlike those political examples, the claims made about mortality rates and their causes are not patently bonkers.

They may turn out to be false, but they are claims being made by people who should be taken seriously and published in a journal that is renowned worldwide. The claims deserve a public airing on the BBC even if they should be treated with caution and even if other interpretations of the conclusions should be provided.

It’s not like they don’t cover these types of reports regularly. Practically everytime I happen to catch the BBC news they are broadcasting some health story about the dangers of some food or what causes cancer, based on the type of research in the report above.

This has been under-reported at a time when the media has been in an uproar about Alex Salmond’s show on RT.

I have my reservations about that myself as there is no doubt that RT is extremely biased toward Putin’s regime. Still, when the BBC decides to ignore a damning report about the cause of hundreds of thousands of deaths, and that report implicates their source or funding, and that same source of funding donates to the body that advises them on science, it is hard not to raise an eyebrow.

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Bobby Hainey

Joint founder of Autonomyscotland. In my spare time I enjoy Road Cycling, Munro bagging and beer.

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