Medical mags accuse DoH agency of excluding reporters

By Alyson Fixter

Magazine journalists have accused a Department of Health agency of
having a “bull in a china shop” approach to dealing with the press over
negative coverage of a multi-billion pound NHS IT scheme.

Specialist reporters at medical and IT titles claim the Connecting
for Health agency, which is spending billions in public money on new
NHS IT systems, has excluded them from press briefings, failed to
answer questions on the scheme and hinted at legal action over critical
stories.

Bronagh Miskelly, editor of medical weekly GP, said:
“We’ve had difficulty getting answers to simple questions, even
compared to the rest of the NHS.

“There was a press conference to
demonstrate the new technology and we weren’t allowed in. We are the
only weekly that carries an IT section every week, and we found that
extremely frustrating, to say the least.”

Phil Johnson, editor of
CMPi-published GP title Pulse, added: “GPs are very, very critical of
how the scheme has been handled. It seems to have lurched from crisis
to crisis.

“But it’s very hard to get intelligent comment out of the agency, they’re very resistant to talking to the press.

“For
example, we were promised an interview with the deputy chief officer in
which he would answer questions from GPs, and that was cancelled at the
last minute. It was only through a lot of toing and froing that we ever
got the interview at all.

“There’s a fundamental lack of engagement with the people who will actually be using the scheme.”

Another
industry journalist, who asked not to be named, told Press Gazette:
“You email through six detailed questions and they come back with
something along the lines of: ‘The NHS is a world-beating institution
that is working hard to improve the health of the nation’.

“The
agency basically has a bull in a china shop approach to pushing through
projects to a particular vision that doesn’t include press scrutiny,
and that’s a view that would be understandable if it were not for the
fact that this is a project that is fundamentalto the future of the NHS.

“The value of the contracts signed is for £6.2bn, and that’s just for the kit.

The
implementation costs could be four to five times that. All the
contracts that companies signed had very tight gagging orders in them
banning unauthorised communication with the press.”

But James
Herbert, director of communications at Connecting for Health, said the
press briefing was intended for national newspaper journalists and “it
would have been unwieldy to have a large gathering of people there”.

“I speak to the trade press on a regular basis and we have run Q&A sessions,” he
added. “Our record on this sort of engagement is not a bad one. We try
hard to engage with all sections of the media, both actively and
reactively.”

He added that confidentiality contracts were
considered normal practice in the industry, but that he felt he had
been “supportive” of businesses talking independently to the press, and
that the agency had never been litigious with any magazine, although it
reserved the right to communicate with the media about inaccuracies.

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