‘Our reporter’ Deborah Cohen becomes ‘a private individual’ when senior BBC Panorama producer is pressed about her ‘defamation’ threats to Learning Disability/Autism campaigner

This follows on from my 30th November and 7th December pieces.

I emailed Panorama on 4th December and invited them to comment

Dear Mr MacFarlane,

Thank you for email about our reporter Deborah Cohen. As far as I am aware, Deborah has never claimed to be a registered medical doctor as you suggest. She sometimes uses the title “doctor”, which she is entitled to use because she has a medical qualification. Deborah does not claim to be registered or a practising doctor.

Best wishes

Andrew Head

Executive Producer

BBC Panorama

(My response)

Dear Mr Head 

I find it disturbing that you do not comment on the ‘defamation’ threat. Does Panorama (or the BBC more widely) have guidelines on this?

And you do not appear to have properly read my piece (including images) in which I set out the evidence for the implied claim to be a registered medical doctor. If you read the GMC guidance (linked to in my piece) such claims do not have to be explicit. This is potentially a matter of illegality and as I understand UK law the notion of an ‘implied claim’ is well established.

Well the GMC today have confirmed that they are looking at the evidence and within a few days (maybe sooner) we shall see what they make of it. 

Thank you for your response.

(next day)

Dear Mr MacFarlane,

I didn’t comment on what you describe as a defamation threat, because I don’t think it is my place to comment on what two private individuals say to each other on twitter. Deborah Cohen is a freelance journalist who was commenting from her personal twitter account. It is up to her what she says on twitter.

Best wishes

Andrew Head

(6th December, my response)

Dear Mr Head

So if a freelance has a contract to make a programme is she not bound to follow usual BBC practices & guidelines? If she is, is there anything in the contract which limits the time beyond which they must be followed? Sara Ryan was commenting on the Bawa Garba programme.

I actually question whether Ms Cohen can reasonably be described as a ‘freelance’. She is an associate editor of the BMJ, (photo) which is wholly owned by the BMA and is represented on the BMA council.

So Ms Cohen is a BMA employee and therefore the programme, I suggest, is best described as a BBC-BMA co-production.

My understanding is that Senior Doctors are almost all members of the BMA. I also understand that the late Jack Adcock’s parents have many concerns about the behaviour of Senior Doctors, especially their widely perceived lack of interest in the original trial, and their recent attacks on the GMC.

I am not an expert on the case, but I am struck by several points:

1. Why did Ms Cohen not question Dr Bawa Garba’s being allowed to be the ‘bleep holder’ on her first day back after 14 months on maternity leave (in the ‘Long Read’ but not mentioned in the programme)? The hospital consultants should have ensured a proper re-induction occurred, over several days at least. A comparison with pilots of passenger aircraft seems appropriate. [I now understand that it was her fifteenth day back, a Friday, but many hospitals have policies about not doing on-call for several weeks after such a long period of leave]

2. The medical director was allowed to state ‘we did not let down Dr Bawa Garba’ without any questioning of that statement being included in the programme. Were the off the record concerns of the junior doctors forcefully put to the medical director? And the many questions that have been raised about the on-call consultant? In the ‘Long Read’ her supportive later consultant Dr Cusack stated ‘many feel Dr Bawa-Garba was let down by the consultant on call both on the day that Jack died and subsequently’. Would you consider making available the whole interview with the medical director?

3. Surely there was sufficient concern & evidence about the on-call consultant to attempt to interview him in Ireland, and even ‘doorstep’ him. Was this not considered?

4. Even the ‘Long Read’ barely addressed the issue of the appeal against the original conviction. I could find no mention in my re-viewing of the programme today. If this was successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, the spotlight would have fallen back on senior doctors.

To what extent had Panorama considered the conflicts of interest outlined above? What steps were taken to attempt production of an ‘independent, impartial and honest’ programme? https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/help-41670342

(Same day)

Dear Mr MacFarlane,

The BBC only expects occasional freelance reporters like Deborah Cohen to adhere to the editorial guidelines in the making of the programme. We do not monitor or control their comments on social media. The programme was overseen by a BBC producer and executive producer to ensure that it complied with our guidelines.

I won’t be commenting further on this matter, but if you would like to make a complaint you can do so at http://www.bbc.co.uk/complaints/

Best wishes

Andrew Head


I find these comments and responses to be very avoidant, especially on the issues of behaviour the BBC expects of its staff when they interact with the public, and Ms Cohen’s BMJ/BMA employment.

On Monday 10th December I emailed Fiona Godlee with further questions about her claim that the BMJ is ‘editorially independent’ of the BMA, but have not received a response.

I plan a further piece on the implications for Mental Health and Neurodevelopmental Disorder campaigners, as well on the issue of the responsibilities of senior doctors regarding the death of Jack Adcock.



About Dr Neil MacFarlane MRCPsych

Independent Psychiatrist providing culturally informed mental health opinion, advice, and a few new facts. Based near London, UK. Main qualifications: BA MBBS MA MRCPsych.

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