MMR, Andrew Wakefield and the Independent

On middle class exceptionalism and why despite his intervention in the Independent, Andrew Wakefield is still wrong.

The Independent has been criticised for ushering Andrew Wakefield - the discredited surgeon who linked MMR to autism and bowel disease - into its coverage of the recent measles outbreak in Wales. Wakefield was struck off the medical record in 2002. His claims have been proved false in countless studies. Yet the former medical researcher says he retains his position, arguing “the Government’s concern appeared to be to protect the MMR programme over and above the protection of children”.

So why, despite Time heralding Wakefield’s Lancet report as among its “Great Science Frauds”, has the Independent given front page coverage to the former doctor?

A spokesperson for the Department of Health was forced to doggedly reiterate the facts: “Dr Andrew Wakefield’s claims are completely incorrect,” he said. “Measles is a highly infectious and harmful disease. If your child has not had two doses of MMR, whatever their age, we urge you to contact your GP surgery and make an appointment.” Ben Goldacre was a little more candid:

Richard Ashcroft, Professor of Bioethics at Queen Mary University of London, pointed to the erroneous use of the denomination "Dr":

Public Health Wales has estimated the number of unvaccinated at over 40,000. Drop-in clinics have been established across south Wales, offering free MMR immunisations - which begs the question: why would the Indie put Wakefield on the front page at such a critical time? A spokesman from Public Health England, speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, laid the blame on "middle class" parents having believed they knew better than the state, exempting their children from nationally available MMR jabs. Around 95 per cent of the population is generally required to be vaccinated in order for immunisation to be 100 per cent effective.

Katherine Clarke, a researcher at University College London, told me: "It was misinformation in the press that led to the decline in uptake in vaccinations." The Lancet report was only a case series, the second in a number stages - later ones include clinical trials which test the propositions made in case studies and series - which may later lead to health recommendations. "So many people still do not realise there is just no evidence whatsoever to support Wakefield's claims."

A nurse draws an MMR vaccination. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.