Letter of Complaint to Mr Gary Smith Head of News and Current Affairs BBC Scotland

Source: John Robertson Letter of Complaint to Mr Gary Smith Head of News and Current Affairs BBC Scotland

Mr Gary Smith

Head of News and Current Affairs

BBC Scotland

Pacific Quay

Glasgow G51 1DA

31st January 2017

 Dear, Mr Smith

I write directly to you as the BBC Complaints system is not fit for purpose. I hope you will be able to answer my complaint below:

‘NHS Grampian says it cannot confirm when new dates will be given to patients for cancelled (sic) operations. The Health Board has postponed more than 100 procedures since the beginning of November 2016.’ (Reporting Scotland, 26.1.17)

We then heard, via Ruth Davidson (a Tory like the ones actually running NHS England into the ground), the case of a prostate cancer patient where ‘further surgery has been cancelled.’

First, let’s deal with the language. Have these procedures been cancelled or merely postponed? See this:

‘To cancel:

Donedead, or dusted. To withdraw an offer. InvalidatedTerminated.

 To postpone: To cause or arrange for (an event) to take place at a time later than the time at which it was originally supposed to happen.’


Does anyone really believe that any of these procedures have actually been cancelled or is that just a better word to use if you want to dramatise as a tabloid might? Is it also (see above definitions) a lie? Remember this is the BBC, with a Royal Charter to inform and not the Daily Mail.

Second, NHS Grampian cannot (yet) tell these patients when their not-really-cancelled operations will be carried out. Is that really too long a time? How many other operations will they have to fit the roughly 100 postponed ones around (around 19 000?)? See below on this.

Third, were any of these operations urgent (life-threatening)? In November 2016, alone, NHS England ‘cancelled’ 446 urgent operations. We must assume the Grampian cases were not urgent or BBC Reporting Scotland would surely have put the word in the headline.


Fourth, the report had no context but only personalisation. First year journalism students learn that good professional journalism can have the latter to interest the viewer but must also have the former so that the viewer can put the figures in context. Is this postponed prostate case one of many or just the only one? Are more than 100 procedures in roughly 100 days a lot or not a lot? The viewer has a right to know and the BBC with its Royal Charter has a responsibility to inform them. I can’t find out how many procedures in total, NHS Grampian did since November so I’m going to have to do some arithmetic and estimation. I accept the limitations in this but if BBC Scotland won’t put things in context, I must do what I can.

‘Official NHS England figures show about 7.7 million planned operations were carried out in England last year (2015/2016).’


Scotland has almost exactly one tenth of England’s population so NHS Scotland did 770 000 planned operations? NHS Grampian has almost exactly one tenth of Scotland’s population so did 77 000 planned operations? In a quarter, that would be 19 000 planned operations? More than 100 were postponed in one quarter? If it was much more than 100 the BBC would have said so – 110? 110 out of 19 000 postponed operations is 0.58%? Is that newsworthy? If you can get me the actual number of ‘procedures’ carried out in that or a typical quarter for NHS Grampian, I’ll adapt the figures.

Fifth, here’s another bit of context – NHS England:

‘During the quarter ending 30th September 2016, 19,399 operations were cancelled at the last minute (previous or same day) for non-clinical reasons by NHS providers.’


England has ten times Scotland’s population so I’m going to estimate again and suggest that would be like 1900 postponed at the last minute in a quarter. So for NHS Grampian, that would be 190 postponed at the last minute in a quarter. Again, if any of those had been cancelled, ‘at the last minute’ might Reporting Scotland have fitted that in somewhere too?


‘Tens of thousands of operations were cancelled by English hospitals last year but not officially counted, figures obtained by the BBC suggest. Official NHS England figures show about 7.7 million planned operations were carried out in England last year (2015/2016). There were 71,370 last-minute cancellations – either on the day the patient was meant to arrive, after they had arrived or on the day the operation was meant to take place. So that’s about four times the figures officially reported by NHS England above.’


If there was even a sniff of this malpractice in NHS Scotland or just NHS Grampian, might Reporting Scotland have mentioned it?

Finally that was Reporting Scotland’s sixteenth ‘scare story’ about the NHS in Scotland since January 4th 2017. Is that dangerous in that it might put potentially ill people off attending? Viewers of BBC News at 6 will of course have seen evidence of a real crisis or as the Red Cross put it, ‘a humanitarian crisis’.

I hope you will see that these are serious problems and suggest that BBC Reporting Scotland will consider ways of improving its coverage of Scottish affairs.


Professor John Robertson