Belfast Telegraph

Doctors are entitled to have and to express own political opinions, just like rest of us

Censorship bid by top civil servant husband of DUP woman totally inappropriate, says Fionola Meredith

The favourite catch-all, slap-down phrase for anyone seeking to silence others is "that's not appropriate". It sounds better than "shut up" or "I don't like what you're saying" - though that's often what it means - because it carries the implication that the accused person is offending against some higher code of behaviour and is therefore automatically in the wrong. Result!

We saw the phrase in action again this week when Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary at the Department of Health, sent an email to the chief executives of Northern Ireland's health trusts. He was unhappy about doctors making political remarks on Twitter, particularly in the election period, and he wanted it stopped.

"I am becoming concerned at the growing number of overtly political tweets from colleagues across the service," he wrote, adding that "whilst clinically independent, front line colleagues must remember that they are employees of the service, and thus such public statements are not appropriate".

To illustrate his point, the permanent secretary appended two examples of offending tweets by doctors, which contained criticism of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

I wonder if Mr Pengelly, who is not only Stormont's most senior health official, but is also the husband of the well-known DUP politician Emma Little Pengelly, stopped to think of the potentially negative consequences of this autocratic missive before he hit the send button. They are so very obvious, it's difficult to see how he missed them.

Worst of all is the blatantly Orwellian tactics. Even if Mr Pengelly were not married to a high-profile DUP candidate, this would still have been a bad mistake.

Doctors, like anyone else, are entitled to their political views. They are at liberty to air them on their private social media accounts or elsewhere, both during the run-up to elections or at any other time, without their bosses breathing hotly down their necks, policing their perfectly legitimate activity.

Of course, health and social care staff are subject to an online code of conduct, but this refers to the use of social media in a professional capacity, not to private use. The Department of Health does not have ownership of its workers. It is not up to senior officials to dictate whether employees may or may not be permitted to express political views when they are off duty.

Indeed, the attempt to place restrictions on those views is an infringement of their basic rights. Medics must resist any attempts to silence them. They are not only "clinically independent", as Mr Pengelly writes, they are politically independent, just like all the rest of us, whoever we may work for.

The trouble is that vague warnings about appropriate or inappropriate behaviour, whether enforceable or not, will have a distinct chilling effect on staff, leaving them unduly worried about what they can and can't say in public. And that is simply not fair.

Yet what exacerbates this already egregious situation is the not-so-little matter of who Mr Pengelly's wife is. He has done her no favours - whether that was his intention or not - with this ill-judged intervention.

By highlighting tweets critical of the DUP, Mr Pengelly left himself wide open to accusations of bias and hypocrisy, and they have not been slow in coming, especially from the DUP's rivals.

When images of Mr Pengelly happily applauding Emma Little Pengelly's win in last year's election subsequently emerged, they inevitably added to concerns that the senior civil servant had overstepped his role.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with a loyal husband expressing delight at his wife's success. Nobody could object to that. But that loyalty and pride must stay entirely and demonstrably separate from all aspects of his professional life. Anyone in that position should be going out of his or her way to make sure that the boundary between personal and public remains visibly intact.

Others have wondered how Mr Pengelly has the time to pore over the private social media accounts of staff, checking them for evidence of improper tweets. Does he not have more pressing priorities, such as attempting to shore up our broke, crumbling, dangerously overstretched health service?

Trying to control what others can and cannot say has become a commonplace of modern life, especially on social media. Mostly it's just trivial squabbling, and not worth bothering about.

But when the government starts telling workers that they are not at liberty to share their private political views in public, then that's when it gets serious and scary. Ironically, there's one familiar phrase that accurately sums up Mr Pengelly's intervention.

Not appropriate.

Belfast Telegraph


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