BBC Reporting: Redefining Privatisation

Graham Bell, 17 November 2011 | 1 Comment

Categories: BBC News | Democracy | Politics | Finance | NHS | Education |

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Opinion on privatisation is divided – viewed by some as a mechanism to help big business at the expense of the taxpayer, and by others as the introduction of competition and a process of freeing public services from state control (often cited in the media as inefficient and expensive). Whatever the motives of privatisation, agreement exists that private companies profit from services that were once run without the end goal of profit.

Since the 1980s, public services including British Telecom, the railways, toll roads, water supply and wastewater services have been privatised. Under New Labour the process continued more or less unchanged, and now the NHS and education system are going through the same process. The end result of the process of privatisation would be to shrink the state to the minimum of functions (with private companies fulfilling its previous roles), serving only to provide security and to inherit private debt (as it has done in the bailouts of the banking sectors around the world), leaving a Darwinian system to decide where wealth accumulates. Proud examples all over Latin America show the results of these systems: the monstrous widening of the inequality gap, the poverty, and the repressive state required to crush any political opposition or uprising.

This history perhaps explains why all attempts at privatisation are covered in layers of terminology, no doubt confusing to the average reader. For the last year, public apprehension has grown that Cameron's government will work towards full-scale privatisation of the public NHS. The media, however, rarely refers to the government’s plans as 'privatisation'. A quick search of the BBC website shows more than twice as many news items referring to NHS ‘reforms’ than those referring to NHS ‘privatisation’. On the other hand, volumes of reporting echo Andrew Lansley’s and David Cameron’s insistent declarations about 'choice' and 'competition'.

Upon reading news of privatisation, one might ask oneself why, if news analysts are so confident about the advantages of the changes taking place, are they so reluctant to use the word 'privatise'? News generally says that critics (a nice word with cranky connotations) have warned that this process is in reality one of privatisation, but that the government reassures us that the changes are about competition and choice. A BBC Q&A report answers the question, 'What about Competition?' - framing the debate within the bounds that competition is necessary. Presumably, the competition and choice the BBC is so concerned about is the same kind of choice that rail passengers in England have following privatisation: Govia, who run the Southern, Southeastern and London Midland rail franchises can now boast that they are 'responsible for 28.7% of all national passenger journeys', while FirstGroup (who run a number of other rail companies under different names) lay claim to 'one quarter of the passenger network'.

The idea of 'competition' promoted by the BBC and other media should be read and understood with a healthy degree of scepticism. If market liberalisation has such great merits, why has the Office of Fair Trading in recent years had to fine the recruitment agency industry and the supermarket industry for price-fixing, and fine the construction industry for bid-fixing? Market-driven oligopolies may indeed give the illusion of competition, when in fact prices are often agreed between 'competitors' at a level which is not necessarily the lowest, but can sustain operations and profits at cooperating companies.

The lack of reporting of such realities again may come down to a refusal of journalists to address social and economic history. On 10th November the BBC reported that Circle, led by Ali Parsa, an ex-Goldmann Sachs investment banker, would take over the running of Hitchingbrooke NHS hospital. The story spoke of a hospital with 'financial difficulties', which would be run by a private company which would then 'reinvest profits'. Bizarrely, two basic questions were not addressed. Firstly, how was profit to be made from a hospital that was 'struggling financially'? And, more generally, why would a private company want to run something that is 'struggling financially'?

Just last week the BBC spoke of the student demonstrators who marched 'against higher tuition fees and "privatisation" in universities'. Why the word 'privatisation' was put in quotes is anyone's guess, though one idea is that it might have been an attempt at portraying irrationality on the part of the students. Radio news reports on the day suggested that students were protesting against 'increased competition' in the university system. Indeed, in June of this year when David Willetts introduced his plan, the headline read 'David Willetts unveils university competition plan', the synopsis going on to say that he wanted to 'increase market forces in higher Education'. The market forces are of course the one thing that all of the mainstream media (both the privately owned and the BBC) never hold to account.

The word 'privatisation' is a direct, simple word that describes the process of ownership changing from state to private control. So why, if 'competition', 'choice', and 'market forces' are such positive directions in which to take publicly owned services, does the media refuse to call it privatisation? Maybe Britain still hasn’t forgotten the 1980s, and the legacy that Thatcherite policies leave behind.

Categories in which this article appears: BBC News | Democracy | Politics | Finance | NHS | Education |

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Comments (1)

1. Jack17 November 2011 18:03

Thank you for a very instructive, though short, article. I am sure you could find many, many more examples of the BBC's so-called objectivity.

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