Holby City leaves transplant facts behind in search of medical drama, but why?

Nine in ten of us watch the TV at least once a week. The living room is the place where we most like to sit in front of ‘the box.’ And the majority of the programmes we view constitute live television.

So found OFCOM in its latest research of people’s media habits published two weeks ago.

The profusion of smartphones, tablets and other media technology has not displaced the special place TV holds in our hearts. No, in some ways, it has cemented it as we mash, mesh and weave the use of these things together.

Multi-tasking is what us civvies would call it. And only half the population are naturally disposed to it!

Whether you are the Chief Medical Officer, a jobbing scientist or charity press officer, the take-home message from the Ofcom report is pretty clear. Social media grows rapidly in importance but tv still commands people’s attention (even if that is now divided somewhat ). Getting our messages right so they land effectively with the Brit lounging in front of his or her tv is what it’s all about.

Debates about the role of broadcasters in communicating science, health research or developments in medicine tend to gravitate around the role of news programming. But TV and radio are often at their most powerful when conveying such subjects in the form of drama. They can grip public attention and literally heave an issue from relative obscurity to dump it at the door of No10 where it can not be ignored. Tony Harrison’s writings on dementia are a case in point. Informed by much research on his part if I recall rightly.

So when fact is fracked beyond its life for the sake of drama, where the resulting fiction does everyone a disservice, it should cause us concern. This, it would seem, is what has happened with a storyline on organ transplantation now running in BBC TV’s ‘Holby City.’

Last week’s episode – and I confess I have not seen it yet – has prompted a stiff letter of protest to the BBC from NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT). This points out the many inaccuracies portrayed in the tv soap about organ transplantation. NHSBT says some people have even withdrawn themselves from the organ donor register because of it. I can believe that having read some of the online comments to a related Daily Telegraph story. The BBC itself had received 48 complaints as of last week. This is a higher number than you think when you look at the complaining habits of the viewing public.

The BBC has responded that the programme wasn’t supposed to be accurate. Let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is their press office not the producers responding. Also that it is August. On the other hand….

Although the BBC say they consulted their in-house medical experts, the NHSBT says that the concerns they expressed over various scenes before they were aired were not listened too.

Holby City but more so its older sister ‘Casualty’ – which used to be rather good before they began to administer so much adrenalin to their patients that ‘the cubicles’ resembled an 80s rave – have allowed their reputations to be partially built on their role in holding up a mirror to our health service and what is happening in it. Hence the topicality of their story lines – the transplantation one being a good example.

Trouble is the primeval impulse that has subsumed the media is to hype and embellish almost everything to the point where reality is no longer insufficient to satiate the viewer. Or so it feels.

Finally, the argument that people know these shows are made up does not ring true when you hear the accounts of TV soap baddies who have been abused by the public on the street.

Personally I think we all have a right to expect that a story which portrays a potentially real-life scenario should have a strong basis in fact. It might also help those who operate the support lines that broadcasters assiduously and helpfully set up to handle questions from the public after such shows are aired.

This is not the first spat and will certainly not be the last involving broadcasters and the dramatic portrayal of medical stories. So I hope that the BBC finds time to respond more responsibly to NHSBT and others than it has done so far. Or we will have to assume it has set the bar on accuracy just that little bit lower for the benefit of no one least of all its public.

One last thing. There is a BBC trailer at the moment which makes much of the fact that sometimes the most gripping stories are real ones. It’s a rather incongruous little insight into how broadcasters now view the world. Wasn’t it always the case that fact is often stranger than fiction?

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