There was an interesting Twitter exchange the other day which in a single word illustrated all that is wrong with the Scottish media. The estimable Lesley Riddoch tweeted a link to her latest article in the Scotsman, a plea to the Scottish media that when they engage in their regular bouts of slagging off NHS Scotland, they should compare the performance of Scotland’s health service with the health services in the rest of the UK before rushing to condemn. The article pointed out quite reasonably that Scotland’s NHS performs significantly better than the Conservative run NHS in England.
Lesley tweeted: “New Year’s resolution for Scottish press. Next winter when opposition politicians are outraged about the state of the Scottish NHS, why not compare conditions with the privatised, collapsing health service in England before passing judgement?”
Scotsman columnist Euan McColm replied to her with a single word tweet: “Why?”
And there you have it. A journalist who writes for one of Scotland’s leading newspapers affects not to know why there should be any need to compare the performance of NHS Scotland with the NHS in other parts of the UK. That’s it right there. Everything that’s wrong with the Scottish media in a single word tweet.
I’m no scientist, and clearly neither are most journalists in the Scottish media. The closest that many representatives of the British apologia press in Scotland get to science is Doctor Who. And they think that’s a documentary. Even though Doctor Who is capable of transversing the barriers of time and space and can travel anywhere and anywhen throughout the vastness of the universe, in 2014 that same British nationalist media was very keen on insisting to us that Doctor Who wouldn’t be able to cross the border into an independent Scotland due to an invisible force field of Unionist lying mince stretching from Gretna to Berwick. But then it’s probably unreasonable of us to expect a media that can’t distinguish fact from Unionist fiction to appreciate the difference between science fiction and fact.
Nevertheless, science operates by making systematic comparisons. I might not be a scientist, but even I know that if you seek to make a reasonable criticism of something or if you wish to understand how relatively well or badly something is performing, then you need to have a standard of comparison. You can say “the Scotsman is rubbish”, but if you’re not comparing it with anything then that statement is pretty meaningless. However if you were to say “The Scotsman’s website makes a potato print collage produced by a five year old look systematic and organised”, then you’ve got a baseline of comparison.
It’s a fundamental rule in science that you compare like with like, so the Scotsman newspaper with the print products of a five year old for example. As far as NHS Scotland is concerned, we have no less than three remarkably similar systems with which it can be reasonably compared, and those are the NHS’s of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The NHS is each of the countries of the UK is administered independently, but each performs the same tasks, and each was set up in the same way. Differences in performance between then are for the most part due to differences in policy and funding decided by the administrations in charge of the respective health services.
Most often when NHS Scotland comes under attack, those doing the attacking are representatives of the Conservative or Labour parties. That’s why it’s even more relevant and valid to compare the performance of NHS Scotland with the performance of NHS England and NHS Wales, because the NHS in England is controlled by a Conservative administration, and the NHS in Wales is controlled by a Labour administration. Scottish Tory attacks on the performance of NHS Scotland might have a tad more validity and heft if NHS England was itself in the best of health. Instead, as the health of health services go, it’s like a 40 a day overweight smoker with diabetes and a raging alcohol problem. So very much like your stereotypical newspaper journalist then.
On Wednesday, BBC Scotland reported that Scottish A&E departments failed to meet the target of 95% of patients being seen within 4 hours. The figures for the week ending 24 December were 83.3%. However over the same period, attendance in A&E departments was up 20% compared to the previous year, so really what was happening was that staff in Scottish A&E departments were dealing with a much heavier workload, but without standards slipping by the same amount that the workload increased. The rise in attendance was believed to be due to an increase in the number of patients with flu and respiratory conditions combined with dreadful weather. The headline A&Es fail to meet waiting time target for December gave no indication that A&E departments were coping with considerably more patients, because you know, SNPBad. Neither did the article point out the shocking state of Tory run A&E services in England.
The NHS in England is failing and is in a serious crisis. On the day that Lesley published her article, a rare beacon of light and common sense in the Scotsman, a consultant in emergency medicine tweeted that patients attending A&E departments in the English city of Stoke were facing “third world conditions”. According to the Guardian, in some English hospitals, some patients are having to wait as long as 12 hours in A&E. Outpatient appointments are being cancelled, and non-urgent surgery has been cancelled until the end of the month. On Wednesday, the Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has the final responsibility for the running of the NHS in England, was forced to apologise for cancelled operations and lengthy waiting times. Scotland’s NHS may have its issues, but it’s nothing like as bad as the mess that the Tories have made of running the NHS in England with their ideologically driven attempts to “marketise” health provison.
Meanwhile the Labour run NHS in Wales consistently performs the poorest in the UK on several metrics. Labour has no leg to stand on either, not least because you’ll be waiting much longer for a knee replacement in Wales than you would in Scotland.
The news agenda in Scotland is generally driven by the news agenda in England where the “national” press is based. When the NHS in England is under the media spotlight, the Scottish media doesn’t want to be left out. On the one hand they want their news agenda to be driven by events in England, but on the other they don’t want to make comparisons with England when Scotland comes out more favourably. The Conservatives and Labour in Scotland continue to criticise NHS Scotland and their criticisms occupy pages in the British nationalist media in Scotland without them ever being called to account for the lamentable way the Conservatives and Labour run an NHS service when they are the ones with the power. The British nationalist media publishes their attacks uncritically, without ever examining how those making the criticisms actually perform themselves where their own parties are the ones who have power and authority in delivering health services. It’s like giving Harold Shipman free rein to complain about how unethical the assisted suicide services of Dignitas really are, without pointing out his own ethical shortcomings.
Update 6.20 pm
I’m just off the phone to my mother. She injured her thumb the other day and it’s been bothering her, so today she took herself off to the Minor Injuries Unit at Stobhill Hospital in Glasgow dreading the lengthy wait and chaos that the newspapers had warned her she was in for. She arrived at 11.05 am, was seen and attended to within 10 minutes by some very friendly, helpful, and professional staff, and was back home again by 12.20, well in time for lunch. Elderly woman goes to hospital and gets treated within 10 minutes doesn’t fit the narrative. The great majority of times that NHS Scotland performs well never gets reported. At least this time there’s the chance to point out that it’s not all bad.
The Wee Ginger Dug has got a new domain name, thanks to Indy Poster Boy, Colin Dunn @Zarkwan. http://www.indyposterboy.scot/ You can now access this blog simply by typing www.weegingerdug.scot into the address bar of your browser, the old address continues to function, the new one redirects to the blog. The advantage of the new address is that it’s a lot easier to remember if you want to include a link to the blog in leaflets, posters, or simply to tell a friend about it. Many thanks to Colin.
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