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Commentary: Standing up for free speech

BMJ 2009; 338 doi: (Published 25 February 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;338:a2094
  1. Michael O’Donnell, writer and broadcaster
  1. 1Loxhill GU8 4BD

    Critics of the BMJ, and of other medical journals, sometimes complain that editorial decisions are influenced by sinister outsiders. The usual suspects are advertisers, political agencies, and academic oligarchies. Less often named as villains are lobbyists who try to suppress or distort data that might damage their cause and who seek to “silence” editors who publish those data.1

    Karl Sabbagh describes a style of lobbying more familiar to journalists working in the national media than to editors and readers of medical journals—the orchestrated harassment of individuals who write or publish articles criticising the Israeli government. The technique has endured for decades because it is effective. Richard Ingrams, editor and columnist, wrote of the historian A J P Taylor, who died in 1990:

    “Although [he] was courageously outspoken on many matters, he admitted that in one field he was guilty of journalistic timidity, if not cowardice. ‘Years of experience,’ he wrote, ‘have taught me that one should never venture an opinion on events concerned in any way with Israel or the Jews. Any attempt at a detached view opens the way for letters, telegrams, personal expostulations and above all telephone calls. The only safe course is never, never, to have any opinion about the Middle East.’”

    By publishing this paper the BMJ risks yet another bout of hassle. Yet not to have published it would have confirmed that the surest way to silence debate in a medical journal is to organise personal attacks on authors, …

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