Feature Medicine and the Media

Does the UK civil service code stifle reporting on health and science?

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h2290 (Published 29 April 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h2290
  1. Ingrid Torjesen, freelance journalist, London
  1. ingrid_torjesen{at}hotmail.com

An amendment to the code has now been clarified, but damage may already have been done, with doctors and scientists believing that they cannot speak to the media without government permission, writes Ingrid Torjesen

A recent clarification to the UK civil service code, explicitly requiring civil servants to obtain ministerial authorisation before speaking to the media, is threatening journalists’ access to health professionals and scientists who work for government and associated arm’s length bodies, such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

On 1 April the journal Nature ran an editorial arguing, “Any block on transparency and openness is a step backwards” and rallying, “Scientists in the United Kingdom should find their voices again. And governments should not muzzle them.”1

Already relatively quiet

Lawrence McGinty, former health editor at ITV News and chairman of the Medical Journalists’ Association, told The BMJ, “These scientists are already relatively quiet when compared with their colleagues in academia, and any message from on high that is anything other than a clear and full message of support for media engagement risks having a further chilling effect.

“What we need from the next government is a new transparency policy for government scientists, not another secrecy one.”

Journalists rely on experts working within government funded …

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