Computer Weekly barred from briefing on national programme

The first media demonstration of new multibillion-pound NHS IT systems took place in Whitehall last week - but technology...

The first media demonstration of new multibillion-pound NHS IT systems took place in Whitehall last week - but technology journalists were barred.

The rare joint press briefing in Whitehall by the health minister John Hutton and the head of the national programme for IT (NPfIT) in the NHS Richard Granger came days before government auditors were set to publish a report that includes criticisms of key aspects of the NPfIT Choose and Book project.

The media briefing was significant because it was an opportunity for journalists to put to the health minister the concerns and questions some NHS organisations have about the NPfIT and Choose and Book.

For example, a board paper to West Suffolk Hospitals NHS Trust in November said, "The board was also concerned about the trust's lack of control over the costs as they were driven by external decision-making. With the delays the trust's risk level was increasing but the organisation's level of control was not improving."

The ban on technology journalists attending the briefing came 13 days after the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, which promises a new era of openness in government.

A notice of the press briefing was a restricted document. It was issued by the Department of Health to a pre-selected circulation list of journalists and publications. "Note that this briefing is restricted to copyees only so please do not forward on to others beyond this list," it said.

It was an invitation to attend the "first media demonstration of new NHS IT technology". The notice added that the briefing would include an "update on the progress of the national programme and a demonstration of some of its systems, including the Choose and Book service".

One of the biggest criticisms of the national programme among trust IT professionals is the selected or restricted nature of communications. This impression may be reinforced by last week's restricted press briefing.

A day after the press briefing, James Herbert, director, communications and stakeholder engagement for the NPfIT, wrote to the editor of Computer Weekly saying that the press briefing was a general one "on the scope of the national programme and included a demonstration of some NPfIT systems that are already live".

He added, "It was not a news conference, no announcements were made. I should like to make it clear that Computer Weekly was not specifically excluded."

He said there were no IT or medical trade journals invited, with the exception of one which is "generally considered to focus on management rather than health or IT issues".

Herbert added, "There is a distinction to be made between a press conference at which an announcement is made and a more specific briefing or update. Generally speaking, the former are open to a wide range of media. The latter are usually aimed at specific reporters or sections of the media."

Herbert said he would be "most concerned if any report of this episode" were to suggest that Computer Weekly's reporter was physically ejected or barred from the briefing.

Computer Weekly editor Hooman Bassirian said, "It is astonishing and very disappointing that the Department of Health has barred Computer Weekly and other IT journals from a public press briefing where national and periodical journalists discussed with the health minister and the head of the national programme for IT the latest developments in the UK's largest civil IT project.

"To exclude IT journals from this rare and very important briefing without a legitimate reason is damaging to the reputation of the government and the national programme in their efforts to be open and transparent in this sensitive and high-profile initiative.

"Computer Weekly, as the UK's leading business IT publication, has a duty to attend such press briefings. Our reporting on the national programme for IT has been widely recognised for its independence and fairness. Indeed, we won the prestigious Periodical Publishers Association award in 2004 for campaigning magazine of the year for our coverage. It is regrettable that the Department of Health has on this occasion made it more difficult to do our job."

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