That’s a remarkable direct quote from Sir John Anderson, who of course was appointed Commissioner of the Hawke’s Bay DHB in a purely political maneuver by the last Government’s Health Minister.

Helllooo, Sir John. Rationing health care, and ensuring its quality — in a system where health care is largely provided by the state via taxpayer dollars — is about as fundamentally political as it gets! Oh, and we did elect certain DHB Board members, an action that — in some quaint circles — implies that they have a constituency to whom they are accountable.

The context of the comment was just as remarkable. He was discussing a new “Media Relations” policy adopted by the Governance Board at its meeting yesterday.

The basic thrust of the policy is warn DHB board members and staff that they had better not talk to the media without media staff clearance, upon penalty of torture. OK, that’s a bit of exaggeration … it’s more like “disciplinary action” and the threat of personal legal liability.

To be sure, there are legitimate reasons to want the media to hear stuff from the most authoritative sources available, and certainly with respect to patient information, privacy rights must be respected.

But the muzzling policy adopted yesterday is pre-Gutenberg press in mentality. It could have been written by lawyers for the CIA. It’s all about trying to manage the flow of information … an almost always counter-productive exercise, and today a meaningless concept anyway, given the blurred lines between journalists and inquiring citizens who have ready access to mass communication tools.

Here are some of my favourite strictures …

  • The Communications Service “should be consulted before any HBDHB Personnel approach or respond to the media.” (“Can I put you on hold? Before I admit that our performance on _____ sucks, I need to check with my minder.”)
  • “Any contact by the media with HBDHB Personnel who do not have delegated spokespeople authority must be directed immediately to HBDHB’s Communications Service.” (An accompanying chart indicates who can speak on which issues.)
  • “Where verbal statements or information are required, they can only be authorised by the Chief Executive Officer or divisional managers, in consultation with the Communications Service.” (Huh? The CEO tells elected Board members what they can say?!)
  • “This policy covers public speaking where media may be present.” (I suppose this means reporters are to identify themselves at all times by wearing hats topped with miniature TV antennae, easily visible above the heads in the crowd.)

Note that “Personnel” as used in this policy document includes elected Board members. What nonsense!

Kevin Atkinson, noting that elected Board members actually went out in public in Hawke’s Bay on occasion, asked if it was permissable for elected Board members to comment on health issues at community gatherings. Sir John — after some virtually inaudible words that included “anarchy” — relented and instructed staff to prepare what will doubtless become known as the “Rotary Club dispensation.”

Personally, disguised with false moustache and glasses, I plan to sneak up on Board members in the supermarket and surprise them with trick questions, like …

  • “Do you think Napier really needs a health clinic?”
  • “Why do you think the DHB’s deficit this year, after a year of proper supervision by Sir John, will be $6.5 million?”
  • “Do you really think woodburners pose a threat to human health?”

When I catch them responding, and record these violations surreptitiously with my cellphone-cum-video camera, I’ll be sure to report them to the DHB media police.

One can only hope that this policy expires coincident with the term of Sir John.

Tom Belford

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