Missing news: A tale of an NHS rally, zombies and security guards


Should the BBC have given more attention and coverage to a mass protest rally over NHS changes outside Tory party Conference in Manchester on Sept 29th last weekend that attracted over 50,000 marchers?

The rally, organised by unions, was mentioned. But like other news programmes on other channels the BBC used a few seconds  (16 seconds in fact) of footage of it as wallpaper within the top story about the conference on the main early evening and later bulletins.  Should it have been a report in its own right? Especially given the prominence given to a Duck Tour boat fire on the Thames the same day? A significant number of viewers and participants thought so. The BBC received hundreds of complaints about the absence. Labour shadow health secretary Andy Burnham has complained by letter to the BBC Trust.

Newswatch will have a flavour of the more than one thousand complaints the Corporation received, and some of the viewers in the studio explaining their concerns. We asked BBC News for an interview to answer viewers in person. It’s the remit of the programme, set up after the Hutton inquiry, to be more transparent with viewers about newsmaking decision. But on this issue we were told “we’re not going to provide an interview for this one.”

On the day of the event the BBC News Channel’s chief political correspondent Norman Smith put out these tweets:

Unfortunately security at #cpc13 won’t allow us to film #nhs299 demo outside conference centre #magnacarta #gloriousrevolution

For clarity. I was stopped from filming “Live” for @BBCNews Channel from conf centre overlooking #nhs299 demo #cpc13

For even more clarity. (This is getting dull). Bar on filming #nhs299 demo at #cpc13 had nothing to do with Tory party.

The new issue of Private Eye magazine says overzealous security guards from a local firm, brought in by police to secure the inner cordon at the conference, were to blame. But the question remains: Why did the BBC comply or not make more effort to contest the ban? Could they not have sought to film from somewhere else? Was the event not worthy of coverage in its own right?

Crucially on a day when there were no high profile speeches or events, the coverage was focused on previewing what lay ahead;  not actual news. And at a party conference where everything is as stage managed as possible by the organisers, the demo was an actual news event, involving members of the public, not politicians who tend to get plenty of airtime anyway. But not even a single vox pop with a demonstrator about why they were there made it on to a national bulletin.

An argument against a separate report might be that the NHS bill has passed and a demo won’t change it. But that’s not an argument that defines news. The rallies against mine closures back in the early 1990s didn’t change anything, but were covered because of the public opinion they represented. The same could be said of the anti-war rallies around the Iraq invasion. The numbers might also be a factor.  But how is the decision made?

The editorial decision not to devote more airtime to the rally raises lots of questions worth debating. Not least because of concern, expressed by some of the angry viewers who contacted us and correspondents direct, that the BBC was being overly cautious out of fear, because of  long term accusations from political groups (discussed on this recent edition of  Newswatch) that it has an innate left wing bias.

There’s a wider of issue of how police and private security firms are exceeding their legal powers to block journalists from filming and accessing stories taking place around controlled events. How should organisations like the BBC respond to such pressures? Are they even aware of them or have too many journalists got used to and stopped contesting overly zealous security? I very much hope we can debate this on a future edition of Newswatch.

The BBC has given Newswatch this statement: “The BBC has covered the protests against government spending cuts and NHS changes that took place in Manchester, with coverage across all platforms on Sunday including the BBC News Channel, radio news, within the lead story on both the News at Six and News at Ten, and a full report on BBC News online.”

The prominence given to what news there was, including online, where it appeared under the local news pages of BBC Manchester,  is among the questions we’ll be debating with viewers on the programme tonight.

You can see our discussion about the coverage on Newswatch on the BBC Newschannel at 845pm on Friday and on BBC1 on Saturday at 745am. It’ll be on i-player after that via the website.

Further reading 

Liberal conspiracy website post on the issue

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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