The British Medical Journal has ditched its controversial decision to charge for publishing obituaries after widespread outrage from doctors and intervention from the British Medical Association.
The Guardian revealed on Monday that the respected magazine had horrified its readers by introducing a £299 charge for publishing 600-word tributes to medics who died. The timing of the decision in the midst of a pandemic that has killed many frontline doctors prompted disgust from the profession and an online petition to get it reversed.
It also led to complaints from the independent magazine’s owners, the British Medical Association, which said on Monday night it was “very concerned” by the move and was in discussion with the publication’s managers.
In a contrite blog post on Tuesday, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Dr Fiona Godlee, announced that the plan to charge for obituaries had been abandoned in the face of “overwhelmingly negative” comments.
She said: “We have listened to readers and we will not now be introducing the fee. No contributors have been charged. We recognise and apologise for the upset this episode has caused.”
Godlee ruefully noted that she was warned against tampering with the most-read section of the magazine. She wrote: “One of only two bits of advice from my predecessor-but-one, Steven Lock, who edited the BMJ between 1975 and 1991, was: ‘Don’t mess with the obituaries.’ Yesterday’s social media storm shows that, as well as this being a particularly difficult time for doctors and their families, the obituaries still hold a special place in the relationship between the journal and its readers.”
She also explained to readers how the magazine had made the initial decision to charge. She said: “Like all publications we need to find ways to be financially sustainable, and we need to do this while continuing to publish the best possible academic and magazine content and to innovate editorially and technologically. However, we recognise that these are especially challenging times for doctors and their families, and I hope this goes some way to explaining what clearly seemed to many of you an inexplicable decision.”
Godlee made the questionable assertion that charging for obituaries was something “most newspapers do as a matter of course”. While the Times charges £1,000 for 600-word tributes in its Readers’ lives section, the Guardian charges nothing for contributions to its Other lives section.
Dr Toni Hazell, a GP in Tottenham, north London, who complained to the Guardian that the charging decision was “unbelievably crass”, welcomed the U-turn.
She said: “This is great news – credit to the BMJ for recognising that an ill-judged decision had been made and taking rapid steps to reverse it.”
Dr Liz Thomas, an intensive care consultant from Manchester, who also spoke out about the plan, said: “I am really pleased in the reversal of their decision. Obituaries are a way to spread respect to colleagues who have died and as a profession it seems courteous to allow this without any charge to the loved ones of the deceased.”
A BMA suggested its intervention had been instrumental in the reversal. A spokesman said: “We welcome the swift action taken by the BMJ to reverse its decision to charge for obituaries. Despite its editorial and operational independence we raised our deep concerns about this as soon as we were made aware of it yesterday.”