Journalist 'frustrated' by FoI ruling to withhold names

A Sunday Times journalist denied information about potential links between Government employees and drugs companies has attacked a decision by the Information Commissioner as "a bad day for journalism".

Investigative journalist Brian Deer's original Freedom of Information request of January 2005 attempted to find out if any staff at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulator Agency (MHRA), an arm of the Department of Health, had links to the manufacturer of Vioxx.

The drug was given to arthritis sufferers, but was withdrawn in September 2004 following safety concerns.

Deer told Press Gazette: "This is very frustrating. I was trying to see if agency staff had links to the manufacturer, and whether they were appropriate to the work. These people take all the key decisions, which are then effectively rubber-stamped by committees such as the Commission on Human Medicines [formerly the Committee on Safety of Medicines], since these lay committees never have time to read all the expert reports that come before them.

"In the end, I got a Sunday Times splash, but had nothing on this key question."

Deer's original request was turned down by the DoH, a decision which was upheld on appeal by the Information Commissioner.

He ruled that the DoH does not have to reveal who is conducting expert reviews of drugs, on the grounds that they might become the victim of animal rights activists.

This contrasts with the US freedom of information system, which sees the publication of the names of all persons involved in drug safety.

Deer said that it seemed perfectly legitimate journalism was being thwarted by the official response to the animal rights activists.

He said: "The Information Commissioner seems to think that there are only about 10 of them, and those are mostly in jail. Yet this is the reason for blocking media enquiries. It's the same with the DoH generally. It routinely deletes the names of persons right across its activities — which is obviously a big chunk of government. Now this practice has been confirmed in the case law of the information commissioner and it's a bad day for investigative reporters such as myself."

Deer added: "The issue is a simple one. Is a name personal information? It makes sense that personal information is where you live, what your health status is, whether you pay your TV licence, [but] your name is not personal information. On this particular occasion because they say ‘our staff are at risk from animal rights activists' we lose the case."

Deer is currently making a television programme looking at the MHRA and its experts for Dispatches on Channel 4.

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