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Panorama’s biased contribution to the BBC’s Project Corona Fear

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WHEN the BBC turned its investigative big guns towards the handling of the coronavirus lockdown, what did it do? 

It projected – via its flagship BBC1 Panorama programme – that there was a massive failure in the distribution and availability of personal protection equipment (PPE) for NHS staff to the extent that many were dying. 

Who or what was to blame? NHS bureaucracy or inefficiency? Public Health England zealotry? Nicola Sturgeon’s profligacy in using NHS resources in her strides towards the nanny state? Or simply the sheer complexity of the supposed crisis? Of course not: this was a BBC programme so there could be only one culprit, ‘the government’.     

The Panorama allegations, broadcast on April 27, have already attracted a storm of negative coverage, and a trenchant defence from the BBC.  

The Guido blog was first off the mark in identifying that six of the ‘experts’ chosen by the programme to give substance to its claims were Labour sympathisers or activists. Further, that this was in flagrant breach of editorial guidelines because the audience was not told that they were biased observers.

Unusually, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden formally joined the fray. He wrote to Tony Hall, the retiring BBC director general, to warn that Corporation journalists should take greater care to be sure that their output was of the ‘the highest integrity’.

With wearying predictability, the BBC was totally unrepentant. A lengthy press office statement said its allegations of incompetence were based on solid evidence. It asserted that the background of contributors was not relevant because they were health workers who were expressing opinions about operational matters. 

What is the truth? News-watch http://news-watch.co.uk/ has conducted a thorough analysis of the 3,500-word programme transcript. The findings are disturbing, to say the least. The complaint letter, which has been sent to the BBC and Ofcom, can be read in full here. 

The first and major area of concern – not covered in previous criticism of the programme – is that Panorama’s claims were at best flimsy and at worst nonsense: 

·       Despite what was said by presenter Richard Bilton, the government was not guilty of inflating the amount of PPE being delivered by double-counting gloves and including hygiene products – the NHS itself does that in its ordering processes;   

·       There is no direct evidence that the government ignored an advisory committee recommendation which said surgical gowns should be on the pandemic PPE stockpile because it is not clear what happened to the recommendation after the committee meeting. Its implementation could have been delayed by a range of factors outside the government’s control, or even ignored by NHS chiefs;  

·       Equally, there is no evidence that the government deliberately downgraded in February the severity of the threat of Covid-19 as an infectious disease in order to downscale the amount of PPE which would be needed to tackle it. This was a decision taken in conjunction with numerous advisers working in accordance with established NHS procedures, made for clinical reasons. These are transparently explained on the government Covid-19 website. 

Of course, on NHS matters, the buck does ultimately stop in many respects with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. But can he micro-manage everything? The News-watch complaint letter points out that NHS has 1.7million employees and a vast management hierarchy, as well as expenditure of at least £130billion a year. In the context of these huge resources, a central responsibility is dealing with health emergencies. The most up-to-date NHS manual on handling a pandemic states: 

‘NHS England is responsible for the command, control, communication, coordination and leadership of the NHS in the event of a major incident or emergency. All NHS England staff should be aware of the key aspects of pandemic influenza preparedness and response and be able to identify how they will be involved in a pandemic response.’

In that context, Panorama’s accusations against the government fall at the first hurdle. Put another way, management of the NHS is, of necessity, delegated.  

Turning now to the handling of contributor comments in the programme, the BBC press statement claimed that their political views were, in effect, irrelevant. What counted was that they were NHS staff who were scared and had concerns about PPE.  

This stretches credulity even further than the ‘government-to-blame’ PPE supply issues. The reality is that the Panorama editorial team chose to edit and publish in what was framed as buttressing ‘evidence’ only the views of people who were critical of the government. If this was not intentionally misleading, it was risibly naive. 

There is growing evidence, published copiously on TCW, that the BBC has been running Project Corona Fear and has thus recklessly and dangerously delimited the terms of debate about responses to the pandemic. Those watching BBC programmes would have searched in vain for coverage of whether the lockdown was necessary or should have been shorter, or about the threats to liberty inherent within such a strategy. 

In the same vein, the Corporation has sought to set limits to the pandemic debate to suit its ideological position that the NHS is sacrosanct and beyond criticism. This explains every element of this edition of Panorama: in the BBC’s book, only the government could be to blame for PPE problems.

This is not to say that the government should be let off the hook over mistakes they have made in handling the Covid-19 threat. But the chances of the BBC doing a well-founded investigation into the issues that matter are zero. This Panorama programme showed yet again that a broadcaster with probably the largest newsroom in the world can’t be trusted to report anything properly in the public interest.

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David Keighleyhttp://news-watch.co.uk
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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