Views & Reviews From the Frontline

Journalistic licence

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 23 January 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f418
  1. Des Spence, general practitioner, Glasgow
  1. destwo{at}

As a general practitioner I am often accused of not being in a position to pass comment on specialist medical care. This is nonsense. I consult on psychiatry, rheumatology, diabetes, and the rest every day. I don’t pass comment on table tennis, wrestling, butterfly collecting, street dance, opera, fashion, Morris dancing, or Peter Andre, because I have no interest in or direct knowledge of these. You need to know something, of something, to say something.

The media pass comment: they have a duty to. But what if senior staff in the media pass comment on the NHS yet do not use the NHS? Can that comment be fair? After the revelations that the BBC provided private medical insurance to some of its employees, I sent several requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Reassuringly, the Department of Health, the Foreign Office, the Cabinet Office, and the Scottish Government provided no private cover. Only the Ministry of Defence used private medicine, £3.75m (€4.48m; $5.95m) on diagnostic imaging and orthopaedic surgery.

I also approached the media, and although not bound by the act, I wondered who might reply. The Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, and Channel 4 are heavyweight hitters, the conscience of the intelligentsia. I tried various approaches, email and Twitter. The only response bravely came from the Guardian, confirming that it indeed provides private medical cover for staff. From the others came a whiff of the fifth amendment.

Queue jumping in healthcare diminishes opinions and hollows out the angry rhetoric of the media. The media is not in a position to comment on the NHS unless they actually use it. The issue of private medical insurance is just another example of a British liberal elite riven with contradictions, such as excessive pay, private education, tutoring, and poorly paid foreign nannies and cleaners. The truth is that we have a socially segregated society, with institutional class based discrimination. Those in power know nothing, and care nothing, for society’s nobodies. The last Labour government did not tackle this problem but rather used money to assuage our consciences over persistent class privilege.

Another obvious truth also conveniently ignored is the private insurance held by doctors. What does it say about the NHS if NHS doctors don’t think it is good enough for their families? Private medical insurance is a conflict of interest for the governing elite. Social correction is only achieved during periods of crisis, and now is such a time. I am intolerant of the phony tolerant; let’s judge others by their deeds, not their written words.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f418


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