Melanie McDonagh

The skewed priorities of the BBC’s abortion investigation story

The skewed priorities of the BBC's abortion investigation story
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Did anyone else notice anything weird about the BBC’s coverage of the story last week about the 14 NHS trusts that a government health watchdog found to be breaking the law in providing abortions? Those 14 clinics used pre-signed abortion referral forms to authorise abortions, which flouts the bit in the Abortion Act that requires two doctors to allow them. But for the BBC, as, inevitably, for The Guardian, the real scandal about the investigation was that it took place at all, at a cost of £1 million and with the result that the watchdog, the Care Quality Commission, the CQC, had to delay or cancel pre-planned investigations in order to carry out this one. And how do we know that? Why, as a result of a BBC Freedom of Information Request.

So the news item that 14 clinics had flouted the requirement of the Act was followed immediately by  mention of the 'controversy' that the investigation had generated and its criticism by Labour. (Similarly, when the findings of the Freedom of Information request first came out about the cost of the inquiry, that made the lead item on BBC News.) Is it just me, or are their priorities skewed?

Leave aside for a moment the reality that the two-doctor proviso is pretty well a formality in most cases; designed to convey the impression that abortion is a procedure carried out on a considered basis rather than delivered as required for anyone who wants one. The law, such as it is, is the law and it’s rather a serious matter that it’s broken. The problem originally came to light earlier this year, if you remember, after The Daily Telegraph found that some providers were allowing patients to obtain abortion for sex-selection purposes, to abort female foetuses. And on the back of this obvious abuse, the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley authorised the CQC to undertake inspections of 249 clinics on the specific question of whether some were, as the Telegraph investigation showed, pre-signing abortion authorisation forms. Though, having said that, the Department of Health made clear that it was the CQC that gave the go-ahead to the investigation, not the Health Secretary.

The bias of the way the story has been covered, with the heavy-handed suggestion that Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, was politically motivated in responding to the Telegraph story – and sorry, what’s wrong with that? – is blatant. And as Charles Moore observed about the BBC’s previous coverage of the story, it’s a classic case of unconscious bias; they can’t even see their own prejudices at work.

The irony of the thing is that the other big abortion story in The Guardian this week was about the campaign against female foeticide – in India. It’s an outrage in Rajasthan but when it happens in Britain, the pro-choicers vent their spleen on a Health Secretary who ventures to suggest that there are irregularities, let alone abuses, in the system here. Makes you think.