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Chinese walls

Last night, Channel 4 News reported that the government’s proposed NHS reforms could create a conflict of interest between doctors and patients, where doctors could be put in the position of purchasing treatment for patients from providers in whom they themselves have shares. Now, I am not a supporter of the government’s reforms but of the all the criticisms and concerns that could be raised, a conflict of interest in this way is arguable by the far the easiest to ‘solve’.

Conflicts of interest are not unheard off within businesses who provide some sort of service, where different departments have to satisfy different groups with competing needs. This is where a business will set up an information barrier, called a Chinese Wall between the two departments. It’s a practice that law firms use a lot because it sometimes happens – not through deliberate action on the law firm’s part – that two parties in a dispute are both the firm’s clients. The ideal solution is to drop one client. Of course, that can have financial consequences in the long term through lost business. The next best solution is the Chinese Wall. It’s an established and accepted practice. 

Now this particular story about NHS reforms was broken by Channel 4 News. Now Channel 4 News is a commercial broadcaster. As well broadcasting programmes, there are funded by advertisers. There is an inherent conflict of interest between the news teams and the advertising teams. Would Channel 4 say that their product is tainted as a result or have they taken appropriate safeguards?

On one level, we have to trust Channel 4 that they have put in place those safeguards. But we also have a strong regulatory system.


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