Just because Wakefield's MMR research has been discredited doesn't mean parents can't question vaccine orthodoxy. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
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What if not all parents who question vaccines are foolish and anti-science?

It is not completely unreasonable for parents to ask about safety concerns.

For reasons that will become clear, I feel the need to begin this by trying to prove I’m pro-vaccine. Here goes.

To my knowledge, I have always kept my son exactly on the vaccination schedule required by our state of Michigan. Now almost 15 years old, he is fully vaccinated according to public-health recommendations.

I’ve also kept myself on the recommended vaccine schedule and I pester my doctor about whether there are any vaccines I am missing. By some measures, I am actually more vaccinated than “necessary”; the HPV vaccine is not specifically recommended for women in their forties, but I bothered to get it for myself when it became available a few years ago. I did so in part because I thought I would sound more convincing when I urged young people to get it – which I do, all the time, because the HPV vaccine can help prevent cervical cancer, anal cancer, throat cancer and genital warts.

But I suspect all that testimony won’t matter given what else I’m about to say. Because as soon as one questions anything about vaccines – as soon as one expresses any doubt or concern about any vaccine practice – one risks being labelled an “anti-vaxxer”. Or at least represented as a kind of gunrunner to the anti-vax camp.

 

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As American historians of science of the same generation, Mark Largent and I have run into each other professionally for almost two decades. So when he showed up for a bookshop signing of my new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger – about the sometimes fraught relationship between scientists and activists – I thought he was just being collegial. Instead I discovered he wanted to talk about what had happened since he had published Vaccine, a book that tries to unpack why so many parents are resisting vaccinations for their children.

In his work, Largent refuses to take sides with either a) the anti-vaxxers, who think vaccines cause disorders such as autism, or b) the anti-anti-vaxxers – let’s call them the vaccine zealots – who think any parent who resists any vaccination is a dangerous idiot. Even though Largent is easily as “pro-vaccine” and pro-science as I am, among the frenzied zealots his sympathy for resister parents has marked him out as a heretic.

Talking with him over coffee a few days after the signing, I learned that, like other scholars whose misery I trace in my book – who have put forward challenging ideas about gender identity, sexual orientation, the nature of rape and childhood sexual abuse – Largent didn’t wade into his chosen topic naive about the potential for upsetting someone. Nevertheless, like those other scientists, he was caught off-guard by how difficult it has been to make his voice rise above deeply embedded dogma and polarised debates to suggest a different way of thinking about things.

A professor at Michigan State University, Largent tries in his book to do something potentially very useful: to sort out how to think about the “nearly 40 per cent of American parents [who] report that they delay or refuse a recommended vaccine for their children”. Refusing to write off those parents as anti-science, Largent finds in fact that “the percentage of [hardcore] anti-vaccinators in the US has held steady throughout the last 100 years at about 3 per cent of the population”. In this category, he counts people who consistently refuse all vaccinations: some religious groups such as Christian Scientists, some minority groups such as the Amish, and some people who are firmly against modern western medicine. Largent purposely does not include people who resist particular vaccines or who deviate from the mandated schedules.

So, controversially, he chooses not to label as “anti-vaxxers” the likes of the actress Jenny McCarthy, who has suggested that holding all children to the same vaccination schedule might severely harm some of them. McCarthy’s own son was diagnosed with autism after he suffered febrile seizures the night following half a dozen inoculations, and she has publicly speculated that his problems were due in part to the vaccines. Her move has led to a website, jennymccarthybodycount.com – which blames her for over 9,000 infectious disease deaths since June 2007.

Largent also bucks the usual trend among the sometimes self-righteous zealots by refusing to see public-health vaccine recommendations as a purely scientific prescription. In fact, he calls the recommended childhood vaccination schedule “a political artefact” – not a simple blooming of the science but a wrangled set of mandates and recommendations that it is not unreasonable for parents to question.

He prefers to call McCarthy and most other parents who doubt or hesitate “vaccine anxious” rather than anti-vaxxers, and suggests that doctors try to understand why parents might resist jabs for their children. For saying this, some have accused him of being part of the problem of vaccine non-compliance. This is a grave charge; if enough people refuse vaccinations for diseases such as polio, our “herd immunity” will be put at risk, and those children and adults who are too medically fragile to receive vaccines – perhaps because their immune systems have been weakened through illness – will end up at risk of severe disability and even death.

Talking to him over that coffee, I got the sense Largent is not sure what is worse: not being heard because he doesn’t fit in easily on either side of the public vaccine debate, or
being positioned as an anti-vaxxer because he dares to try to think deeper about the history and the facts of vaccination campaigns.

 

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To understand Largent’s argument, it’s useful to consider what a child’s vaccine schedule now is. US public-health officials recommend that in the first 18 months of life a child receive no fewer than 25 vaccinations. By the age of six, the appropriately vaccinated American child will have been subject to about three dozen vaccinations. In Britain, the schedule begins at two months with three injections: a pneumococcal vaccine, rotavirus, and a combination jab that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and Hib, a type of bacterial infection. There are three more jabs at three months, another two at four months, and six more before starting school. That’s a lot of interventions for a parent to manage in a short space of time.

The number was similar when my own son was little and, talking to Largent, I remembered with some surprise that I could have reasonably been labelled a “vaccine-anxious parent”. My maternal instinct was riled with every new round of shots and cries and tears: I remembered one particular visit to our paediatrician when my gut instinct had a sharp argument with my brain. I can’t even remember what the vaccine was; I just remember that Gut was yelling, “Enough already! Stand between our baby and that needle!” Trying to stay calm, Brain answered: “Vaccines are safe, and necessary not just for our baby’s health but for the health of those around him, especially children more vulnerable than him . . .”

That one time, I asked the nurse if I could see the written literature on this vaccine. I wanted more information not because I was going to refuse the shot, but because I wanted Brain to shut Gut up. She looked shocked and annoyed and told me testily that there wasn’t any information available. The jab was just compulsory.

No pamphlet in the box, for parents? I asked.

No, she said.

I suddenly regretted even asking. Would I be labelled a “worried” mother, or worse, a  “non-compliant” one?

Fortunately, our doctor came into the room at that moment. He knew that I had a PhD in history of science, and that I am a deep believer in science, in evidence-based medicine, in public health and so also in vaccines. Maybe because of that, or maybe just because he’s a good doctor, he quickly understood the situation. He went to his computer and printed out several pages of information about the vaccine. He gave me time to read, and waited for me to say “OK” before telling the nurse to proceed.

 

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Not everyone is as sympathetic to anxious or resistant parents as our doctor was. ­Writing on a blog under the pen name “Orac”, David Gorski, a surgeon and professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, has lambasted Mark Largent for talking about “vaccine-anxious” parents rather than “anti-vaxxers”. Gorski calls Largent “clueless” and insists that “the concerns of these parents are almost always rooted in pseudoscience, fear-mongering, and outright scientific misinformation”.

He goes on: “What ‘moral concern’ could lead parents to leave their children unprotected against vaccine-preventable diseases, particularly deadly ones?” How dare Largent suggest that paediatricians “address their concerns”, he writes, “as if paediatricians don’t try to do that every time a parent brings her child for a well-child visit and baulks at allowing her child to be vaccinated”?

I wonder if Gorski would have been appalled at my hesitation in my ­paediatrician’s office, like the nurse was. But here’s the thing: I don’t think my anxiety was rooted in pseudoscience, fear-mongering or outright scientific misinformation. While Gorski might want to write me off as a bad and anti-scientific mother, in most clinical encounters a mother asking for data about medical necessity, safety and efficacy before consenting to an offered medical intervention would be seen as a good and scientific mother. So why are vaccines treated in such an exceptional way? Why are they seen as different from most interventions in medicine and public health – requiring old-fashioned paternalism and even heavy-handed legal compulsion?

First off, as every vaccine zealot will (rightly) tell you, vaccines are not your usual sort of medical intervention. To state the obvious, with few exceptions (such as the tetanus vaccine), vaccines don’t just protect the individual being vaccinated; they also help to create “herd immunity”. It is hard not to look at the history of diseases such as polio, diphtheria and smallpox and not feel motivated to sing whatever rousing song will convince everyone to enlist in the army of the vaccinated.

Vaccine zealots also understand vaccines (again, rightly) as being different from other medical interventions because they are subject to higher levels of safety monitoring. They are, as a class, arguably the safest type of medical intervention we have in the world. Any time a vaccine is found to be unsafe or is even perceived as potentially unsafe, public-health campaigns may be put at risk, so most public-health officials are quite vigilant about safety-testing before releasing vaccines into the market and about monitoring them afterwards.

Finally, the history of terrible falsehoods that have been spread about vaccine safety causes in anti-anti-vaxxers the kind of fervour you should expect to find among people who feel their enemies have cheated. In terms of major falsehoods about vaccine safety, best known is the case of Andrew Wakefield in the UK, who claimed to have evidence of a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. In 2003, the investigative journalist Brian Deer began to uncover evidence that Wakefield didn’t just have his data wrong, but had actively misrepresented it. (The Lancet, which had published Wakefield’s work in this area, finally retracted it in 2010.)

In Galileo’s Middle Finger, I write about another major case of falsehoods spread about a measles vaccine. This involved the book Darkness in El Dorado, published in 2000 by the self-styled journalist Patrick Tierney. He suggested that the geneticist James Neel purposely conducted a Nazi-like eugenics experiment on the Yanomami people of the Amazon by giving them a vaccine that caused a measles outbreak. Tierney was wrong: the epidemic started before Neel arrived in Yanomami territory, the vaccine didn’t cause measles, and Neel and his team did everything they could to race ahead of the disease to vaccinate those at risk. But Tierney’s work has fed ­anti-vaxxers and spread false beliefs about vaccines.

Given the Wakefield and Tierney falsehoods, the high safety and efficacy rates of vaccines, and the history of vaccine success worldwide, it is hardly surprising that some public-health advocates see vaccines as the biomedical equivalent of Nelson Mandela.

You can guess what that makes parents who resist.

 

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So why isn’t Largent – and why aren’t I – a vaccine zealot? Well, despite the understandable passion of the vaccine fundamentalists, there are some inconvenient facts that are often overlooked in public debates about vaccines. Noticing them won’t make you an anti-vaxxer but they can make you feel like a vaccine heretic.

First, consider the question of necessity. Not all illnesses for which vaccines exist are as grave as polio or smallpox. Take chickenpox. Some American states have made the chickenpox vaccine mandatory – keeping children out of school unless they get it – ­after a lot of heavy lobbying by its manufacturer. But it is reasonable to ask, as I did, if it wouldn’t be just as safe to let your healthy child catch chickenpox, which is a minor disease for most healthy children, instead of giving them the vaccine. (That is the strategy of the NHS in Britain: it does not routinely offer the jab, claiming “there’s a worry that introducing chickenpox vaccination for all children could increase the risk of chickenpox and shingles in older people”.)

Next, consider safety: all vaccines do carry some risk – even if it is only a very, very small one. Some vaccines, in fact, are not generally given to the public because of concerns about safety. (The anthrax vaccine would be a good example here.) It is not completely unreasonable for parents to ask about safety concerns with vaccines.

Finally, consider the influence of money in the public-health system. Make no mistake: vaccines are a boon to big pharmaceutical companies, and the companies that make and push vaccines are the same kind that have been repeatedly fined for all sorts of bad behaviour where drug marketing is concerned. Moreover, studies consistently show that financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry influence the behaviour of doctors and policymakers – and yet many in those groups maintain such financial ties anyway. I’ve seen British medical journals that are normally vigilant about conflicts of interest “forgive” failure to disclose funding from vaccine-makers by an ethicist who pushes those companies’ vaccines as “necessary” in those journals and in the mainstream press.

Monetary influence on politicians’ decisions about vaccines is even easier to find. One example: there has been huge resistance to the HPV vaccine, which prevents a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer, because religious groups argue (against the scientific evidence) that it may encourage promiscuity in teenagers. Yet Rick Perry, the then Republican governor of Texas – who might be expected to pander to the Christian right’s abhorrence of the vaccine – suddenly decided to mandate the HPV vaccine for schoolgirls after a series of donations from the vaccine’s maker.

The facts listed above might lead you to wonder if all this suspicious behaviour isn’t ultimately as dangerous to public-health vaccine campaigns as someone like Jenny McCarthy is claimed to be – because it breeds cynicism, conspiracy theories and distrust of the medical profession itself.

But as Largent has been learning, you can’t say these things. You have to subscribe to vaccine exceptionalism – vaccines are all necessary, safe and effective and should never be questioned! – or risk being crushed. In the zealots’ eyes, in the battle to vaccinate the world, moderates must be crushed so that children can be saved.

The problem is that the zealots’ approach doesn’t work. Studies show that haranguing people with proof that vaccines are safe doesn’t increase parental compliance. Ironically, if you really take science seriously, you have to admit that beating people over the head with scientific studies generally doesn’t get them to be act in more rational ways, particularly if some important parental psychology is getting in the way.

If you want to understand and reduce vaccination non-compliance, what probably has to happen is what Largent has been trying to do. You have to work to achieve a subtler understanding of parental decision-making, along with a recognition that ­public-health campaigns aren’t Pure Science but are influenced by politics and money (although maybe they shouldn’t be). You have to stop talking about “vaccines” as if they were all one thing, and stop talking about vaccination schedules as if they were simple products of value-free science. You have to stop claiming “we” have science and “they” have stupid.

 

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Mark Largent is working now with public-health officials with the goal of improving vaccination rates by understanding the reasons why a reasonable, well-informed parent might decide to opt out of vaccinations.

Like Largent, I wonder if this more respectful, more generous approach will work. I wonder if it has any hope of even catching on as a public-health approach. Ultimately, given the perceived risk that moderate voices such as Largent’s allegedly present in this matter, the idea of taking vaccine-anxious parents seriously may be declared too heretical to be preached within the church of public health.

Even if Largent is declared a dangerous heretic by those who claim to be the true defenders of vaccine science, he likely won’t end up as badly off as many of the scientists I interviewed for my book. He probably won’t end up accused of genocide, accused of having sex with a research subject, having 20,000 people email his university president calling for his dismissal, or having to fight in court for his right to publish results of his research, as various of the beleaguered scholars I interviewed were.

Moreover, Largent is a big boy with a tough skin. I am not too worried about him. The people I am worried about are the ones who may end up harmed because we couldn’t bring ourselves to think more clearly about what is really going on in vaccination campaigns – because we couldn’t see that it was time to give up on the dogma and bring in the heretics if we want to save more souls.

Alice Dreger is the author of “Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science” (Penguin Press)

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

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For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

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The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

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Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit