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How the BBC shamed itself with crass portrayal of health and social care service users

Sometimes those who prepare images to present to the public are so irresponsible and prejudiced that their actions border on peddling propaganda.

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It should be an essential trait for any journalist to avoid stereotypes, for any videographer to look beyond the clichés and for any editor to spot either and remove them immediately from anything that is broadcast to the public.

Well, you would think so. But the BBC – who, let’s face it, has had many decades of experience presenting news to billions of people – cannot seem to avoid falling into the obvious and incredibly crass trap that is so visible that a child could spot it.

The other night, BBC News was reporting on the radical idea of devolving health and social care budgets to the regions, beginning with Greater Manchester. Breaking down silos, all service providers working together, taking the pot of money away from central government and handing to local bodies so that they decide who should benefit from it. It’s actually an amazing idea, probably all the more amazing for the fact that it is being put forward by a Conservative government. But ignoring the politics of the issue, how did the Beeb choose to illustrate this ground-breaking concept?

For some peculiar reason – oh wait, the clue is in the interview with the interim mayor and the fact that the local authority is obviously involved – the reporter began his piece to camera by walking down the steps of what we presume was Manchester town hall, with images of turning cogs being shown while he spoke of turning back time… or something. Exactly, flimsy doesn’t begin to cover it.

But even this was totally acceptable when compared with what was to follow. While the reporter spoke of how the various bodies will work together, the video footage concentrated on showing us who the supposed service users were.

Yes, we understand that the reason Manchester was chosen was because of the large number of poor and deprived people but – according to the BBC – the NHS is only there for poor people. Not only that, but poor people who bring it upon themselves and/or are a bit common. Why else were we shown footage of an obese teenager walking past a wall covered in graffiti, followed by a young woman in her pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers walking down the street, followed by an elderly man carrying two shopping bags while walking his dog?

Is this the BBC’s way of summing up poverty and deprived areas? Is this even the BBC’s view of Manchester? Given that the organisation moved not that long ago (in 2011) to the area – to a very modern set-up called MediaCityUK – it’s surprising that it sees Manchester in this way.

More surprising was that while it could be forgiven for attempting to portray the kind of person who uses social services the most (a very dangerous thing to try), the BBC instructed its camera operators – or at least did not exclude the footage they took – to film some houses where… wait for it… there was washing hanging out on the line. Given that the overall report was something like 30 seconds, it was telling that there were two separate lingering shots of these properties with washing in the back gardens.

Woah. Alarm bells should’ve been sounding loudly here. Let’s get this right, if you shuffle home with your shopping bags, if you wear your dressing gown in the street, if you are slightly fatter than your friends, and if you hang out your washing to dry from the sun and the air, you are candidates for social services or the NHS?

What, do people who are not deprived not use the NHS? Do people who are not deprived not hang out their washing? Are these services only there as safety nets for the less well-off? And if you hang out your washing are you poor? The buildings where this washing flew in front of were not run down. They had certainly not been originally designed as slums or to look like poor people should live in them. And what does hanging out your washing mean, that you are so poor you cannot afford a tumble dryer? Is that how middle class people dry their clothes?

Consider the following scenario, which logic dictates must be pretty close to reality: upon deciding it was going to cover this news the BBC sent out – out of its extremely posh premises – a camera crew to get some shots that were representative of the story. How can we illustrate the thrust of this story? Let’s head for a dodgy estate. OK, this looks pretty bad. Hey, there’s a wall with graffiti on and there’s a chubby teenager. Hey, there’s a woman in her nightwear in the middle of the day. Hey, there’s some old bloke who looks like he might be using the NHS any day now… and he’s carrying shopping bags! And, jackpot, there’s some washing in the ‘back yard’, how bad is that! Brilliant, job done, get that back to the studio for editing. Upon the footage arriving back at base, the editor nods with approval: “I think we’ve cracked it, get that out on the 10 o’clock news, this will really tell people what’s going on.”

No, no, no, a thousand times no. Yet again, the BBC’s in-built prejudices and utter incompetence shine through. Once again, an organisation charged with a responsibility that is backed up by fairness and objectivity fails to match up to its obligations. How can anybody at the BBC have been happy with that output? They are not supposed to be detached like politicians from what is happening in the real world to real people. They are supposed to cut through the clichés and the claptrap and provide us with a picture from which we can form our own interpretations. They are not supposed to lead us down any particular path by summing up a population nudging three million with a handful of patronising snapshots.

I’d go so far as to say that this report risked bringing the honourable practice of journalism into serious disrepute. The BBC should be ashamed of itself and every journalist involved in that story should take a long, hard look at what they produced before embarking on the next piece of broadcast news.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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