BMJ apologises for 'insensitive' obituary of doctor

By Jon Slattery

A magazine has apologised for the distress it caused when it described a doctor as a “rotter” and a “snake oil salesman” in an obituary.

The apology by the British Medical Journal follows a complaint by the family of Dr David Horrobin that the obituary in the BMJ last April was inaccurate and intrusive.

They claimed it contained 29 factual errors and nine examples of “negative editorialising” in which aspersions were cast on the career and character of the doctor. It suggested he might “prove to be the greatest snake oil salesman of his age” and referred to him as a “rotter, unethical and given to escaping his responsibilities”.

The BMJ told the Press Complaints Commission it had offered to print a correction and apology for the inaccuracies; had published around 100 rapid responses on the website, including alternative obituaries; had published a summary of those in the magazine, including three shortened versions of the alternative obituaries.

The BMJ stressed its view that obituaries should contain critical material and not be a mere eulogy.

The PCC, however, found the correction originally offered left uncorrected the “character assassination” of the original article and said the editor’s decision to defend the principle of negative obituaries was being made at the expense of this particular case.

The BMJ said it was prepared to offer an apology on the grounds the article “may have lacked sensitivity”.

In its adjudication, the commission made clear that publications had a responsibility to ensure obituaries were handled sensitively, although this did not mean it was unacceptable to publish criticisms of the dead.

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