This week a Scottish journalist told us ruefully that over the festive holidays, all parties send the newspapers “Christmas boxes” comprising a load of ready-made and pre-chewed garbage stories, each embargoed to specific days, for them to run in the news desert between Boxing Day and January 3rd with no further effort required.
(This year’s crop had been particularly dismal, our source revealed.)
It seems, though, that the media plans to continue the practice all year.
In a week when the Red Cross issued an emergency warning about a “humanitarian crisis” engulfing the NHS in England, with A&E units closing their doors to patients 42 times in a single week, the Scottish media is still desperately trying to whip up scare stories about a health service in Scotland that’s coping considerably better with the vast pressures of the modern era than its beleaguered counterpart to the south.
(For example, 93.5% of patients in Scotland’s A%E units in December were treated in less than four hours, compared to just 77.6% in England this week. The Scotsman reported the 93.5% as “Christmas A&E waiting time targets missed”. Bed-blocking is falling steadily in Scotland while it rockets out of control in England, so obviously all this week the Scottish press were wailing about an SNP bed-block apocalypse.)
The Scottish media’s chosen method for making things sound as bad as possible has for many years been to propagate Scottish Labour “SNP BAD” press releases without the slightest scrutiny or verification. On the day that most UK papers were reporting a near-total meltdown of NHS England, the Times’ Scottish edition ran with this:
Alert readers will immediately be struck by the total absence of any context anywhere in the story. Is the number of operations cancelled due to lack of capacity rising or falling? We’re not told. How does it compare to elsewhere in the UK? We’re not told.
The reason for that is that the data has only been published since June 2015, under a Scottish Government initiative. Cancellations, along with the reasons for them, are released monthly by the Information Services Division of NHS Scotland, on a website that’s a model of accessibility and clarity. But there aren’t yet two full years of stats to compare, so Labour and the Times just fire out some numbers that mean absolutely nothing and hope that people assume the worst.
They’re not alone. Not long after the figures started being published, the Scotsman ran a shock-horror “80 OPERATIONS CANCELLED A DAY” story, which vomited figures at the reader in such a formless mess that after four paragraphs any normal person would have no idea what on Earth was going on, or where or why.
In the space of just a few dozen words we’re given figures that are daily and monthly, local and national, and measured in a bewildering mixture of numbers and percentages and fractions and percentages OF percentages, along with helpful asides explaining that 12% is more than one in ten and 17% is nearly a fifth.
We haven’t seen an incomprehensible shambles of numerical hieroglyphics like that since a Severin Carrell piece on oil revenues for the Guardian last March (following hot on the heels of a similar effort from the same author on debt a few months earlier), but examples of data being presented without any context are becoming increasingly common – the Scottish Daily Mail had one on police numbers just a fortnight ago, and one on train delays a fortnight before that.
What we CAN say, though, is that the Times’ headline figure of around 20 operations being cancelled a day due to lack of capacity appears to be a significant reduction on just six years ago, when the numbers were higher.
A June 2010 report by Deadline News revealed that of over 600 cancelled operations in Scotland a week, a quarter – roughly 150 – were cancelled by hospitals for reasons of capacity. (In 2010 non-emergency operations were only conducted on weekdays, so that’s effectively 30 a day.) Scottish Labour’s then-health shadow Jackie Baillie, who’d obtained the figures through FOI requests, complained that:
“This is a sign of the increasing pressure on NHS staff and resources, such as bed numbers, as a result of the SNP’s cuts to health budgets. Nicola Sturgeon needs to get a grip of the situation or it will get much worse.”
And yet remarkably, six and a half years later, with the size of the problem seemingly having gone down by a third despite huge financial pressures created by a Tory UK government’s austerity regime, her successor Anas Sarwar was reading from almost exactly the same script:
“These figures are the clearest indication yet that our NHS is struggling to cope under pressure and isn’t getting the resources it needs from the SNP government. After a decade of mismanagement it’s time for the SNP government to invest in our NHS for the long term.”
As far as we can tell from the ISD stats, incidentally, the number of hospital-cancelled operations over comparable time periods in Scotland HAS gone up slightly from 2015 to 2016 – by a whopping 0.4% (from 1.7% of planned ops to 2.1%). But that’s a very small sample, and is a micro-fluctuation anyway.
(The closest comparison that we can find for NHS England suggests that pro-rata, cancellations are still around 10% lower in Scotland.)
Lindsay McIntosh of the Times is every bit as capable of spending 20 minutes or so Googling all this stuff as we are. But that’s a little bit too much like hard work for the modern breed of Scottish political journalist, when you can just get two sides to give you quotes, wash your hands of any responsibility for determining which (if either) is telling the truth, and be off to the pub for a nice long lunch.