Media Watch – Five ways Scotland is damaged by biased news reports of doctors strike

Today marks the end the strike by NHS junior doctors in England - for now. Most media outlets have continually ignored that there has been no strike in Scotland - the Scottish government agreed to gradually restore doctors’ pay levels last summer.

Many viewers in Scotland will have been shouting at the TV this last week asking: “What about Scotland?” when it is omitted from UK-wide reports - even though Northern Ireland and Wales, which also face industrial action, are mentioned. 

At the same time, Scottish media outlets have uncritically carried misleading claims by Unionist parties about Scotland’s health service. Both UK-based and supposedly Scottish media have demonstrated a lack of balance in their coverage of the situation. 

Here are five ways this pattern of news reporting is damaging to Scotland. 

#1 On the opening day of the strike, BBC Reporting Scotland ran a misleading report on NHS waiting times

On day one of the strike in England, BBC Scotland ran a misleading item about waiting times in Accident and Emergency in Scotland. It failed to make clear to viewers that Scotland is unaffected by the junior doctors strike or discuss why – it did not even mention this. 

The report also did not mention that Scotland’s average waiting times are much shorter than those in England. The most recent figures show that 65 percent of patients in Scotland were seen within four hours, compared to just over half in England. 

There was no mention of this, no comparison at all between the two countries and no mention of Scottish government offers to mediate in the English dispute. 

Yet, had the situation been reversed, it is a racing certainty that the bulletin would have been led by Unionist politicians bemoaning Scottish failure. 

#2 Over the weekend, several media outlets ran a claim by the Labour Party that long A&E waits are killing thousands of Scots - without explaining that the comparable figure in England is likely to be much higher

Newspapers including The Sunday Times Scotland, The Scotsman and The Sunday Post ran a claim by the Labour Party that A&E waiting times may have ‘caused 1,600 deaths in Scotland last year’. They did not explain that England’s figure is proportionately much higher. 

The Scottish Labour Party produced this number based on a statistic from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, suggesting that 1 in 72 patients who wait longer than eight hours will die. 

Until recently, wait times were measured in England only AFTER a decision had been taken to admit. Scottish stats were measured differently until recently – the clock always started ticking from the time someone attended A&E in Scotland. 

The RCEM told Believe in Scotland that they obtained the English data from freedom of information requests to create a figure for all four nations.

An RCEM spokesman said: “The figure of one in 72 excess deaths is based on the best scientific information we have for all patients who are admitted after a 12 hour wait. We think the figure the Scottish Labour Party calculated is accurate for Scotland but we agree the figure for England would be proportionately higher.”

#3 Even left-leaning outlets like the Guardian and Channel 4 News have not made clear to viewers what is happening in Scotland. 

Channel 4’s TV bulletins about the devastating effect of the strike on appointments and operations listed industrial action in NI and Wales – but Scotland did not get a mention. It was simply dropped from the report of UK nations’ relations with doctors’ unions. 

The Guardian did mention Scotland – in brackets. It did not report that the Scottish Government has shown willingness to work with the junior doctors leaders or that they have agreed to gradually restore the comparative pay loss suffered by these fully qualified medical professionals compared to where they were back in 2008. 

#4 Media reports last month denounced Scotland’s tax rises – but did not link them to improved pay for health workers

There was a lot of condemnation in the Unionist press last month of Scotland’s higher tax rate. “One of Scotland's richest men tells SNP to stop raising taxes”, reported The Times, for example. The new higher band rate “might only raise £60 million” reported the BBC. It did not reveal that this is exactly the amount that the increased pay for junior doctors is predicted to cost. 

Many of the same Unionist commentators who are calling for more investment in the NHS are the first to condemn increased taxes. But if doctors are to be paid more, then that has to come from taxation.

However, it is well documented that higher quality public services increase quality of life generally and that can feed into a more dynamic economy. The wellbeing economy is about building a strong society with universal basic services. 

#5 If the situation was reversed, would these comparisons have been made?

Imagine for one moment that the longest doctors strike in the history of the NHS was taking place in Scotland and there was no strike in England.

News bulletins would be led by Unionist politicians denouncing the Scottish government. Yet when the situation is reversed, there is no room for news about Scotland. Scottish politicians are not invited to discuss how they managed their successful negotiations with doctors unions. 

The agreement in Scotland is for a 12.4 per cent pay increase for junior doctors in training for 2023-24 together. Following the 4.5 per cent uplift for 2022–23, this equates to a total increase of 17.5 per cent over two years – half the headline 35% figure that junior doctors in England are reportedly asking for. The agreement is that the full figure will be restored incrementally.

Conclusion – no comparison is made whenever it might be to Scotland’s favour

What is the effect likely to be on citizens in England of so many cancelled appointments and operations? Increased waiting times – perhaps even higher death rates and more pressure on some to go private. What is the benefit for Scotland of having a stronger NHS where doctors are paid a bit more fairly? These comparisons are relevant and should be made. Similar comparisons – such as relative performance in the international education standard PISA – are made very forcefully. 

The reports of the NHS strike are more proof that Scotland suffers from a media which is largely owned and controlled by institutions based in and focused on England. It does not make comparisons when these would come out in Scotland’s favour.  

There is obviously still a need for improvement. Scotland’s NHS has issues and challenges to face. But the deluge of incorrect and misleading reports over the last week is not helpful and it undermines confidence in an unwarranted way.