Giving space to Andrew Wakefield on MMR isn't balance, it's lunacy

The Independent should not have run the discredited doctor's claims on its front page today, says Martin Robbins.

The photograph below is all that the majority of parents with young children will see of the Independent today, waiting in supermarket queues or flicking through magazine racks. The front page quotes a doctor – never mind that he was struck off in order to protect patients – saying he was right about the MMR-autism scare. And so the zombie controversy rises from the dead again.

There are three realities that need to be addressed here right at the start. First, the MMR vaccine is safe, many tens of millions of doses have been administered worldwide, the data show no link between MMR and autism. As with any medicine there are occasional side effects, in some cases these might be serious, but the benefits far outweigh the slight risks.

Second, single vaccines are less safe than MMR. They are less convenient, leading to poor uptake and more children being unprotected for longer; and they have had far less testing.  If the NHS were to start touting single vaccines as an alternative then not only would it have a negative impact on public health, it would be taken as evidence that the problem was real, potentially leading to a catastrophic loss of public confidence in vaccines (remember Tony Blair’s role in all of this).

Third, Andrew Wakefield is about as discredited as it is possible for a doctor to get. He was found to have ordered invasive investigations on children without either the qualifications or authority to do so. He conducted research on nine children without Ethics Committee approval. He mismanaged funds, and accepted tens of thousands of pounds from lawyers attempting to discredit the MMR vaccine, being found by the GMC to have intentionally misled the Legal Aid Board in the process.  He was not just dishonest, unprofessional and dangerous; his contempt for the rules and regulations that safeguard children in research projects was vile.

Wakefield’s research was unconvincing at the time and swiftly refuted, yet the ‘controversy’ over MMR has raged for years, fuelled almost entirely by credulous idiots in the media.

As Ben Goldacre wrote almost three years ago:

“The media repeatedly reported the concerns of this one man, generally without giving methodological details of the research, either because they found it too complicated, inexplicably, or because to do so would have undermined their story. As the years passed by, media coverage deteriorated further. Claims by researchers who never published scientific papers to back up their claims were reported in the newspapers as important new scientific breakthroughs while, at the same time, evidence showing no link between MMR and autism, reviewed academic journals, was simply ignored. This was cynical and unforgivable.”

And yet, three years after Wakefield was struck off and the Telegraph’s best journalist, Tom Chivers, wrote “so, farewell then, Dr Andrew Wakefield”, here we are again with Britain’s most dangerous doctor since Harold Shipman given pride of place on the Independent’s front page.

The villain, now firmly at the heart of America’s quack autism-cure industry, has come to gloat even as 60 measles-afflicted children are sent to hospital beds in Swansea.

What impression does the Independent website give of the MMR ‘controversy’?

On Twitter, the Independent's health writer Jeremy Laurance has spent the day demanding that critics read the whole piece. “Jeeezus!”, he responded to Ben Goldacre and others at one point, “U have NOT read the story.” What Laurance fails to understand is that few people ever do read the whole story. Any competent journalist understands that people tend to grab the information at the top, and don’t always stick around until the end of the piece. 

And besides, it’s not just the headline. Laurance’s article continues to put Wakefield’s point of view for a further 14 paragraphs, before giving over barely half that space to one contrary voice, addressing only a fraction of the points made. It would be a great example of the false balance inherent in ‘he-said, she-said’ reporting, except that it isn’t even balanced – Laurance provides a generous abundance of space for Wakefield to get his claims and conspiracy theories across, and appends a brief response from a real scientist at the end. 

The Independent’s deputy editor, Archie Bland, protests that ‘it’s not as if we give [Wakefield] unqualified airtime’. Well no, but few disclaimers – calling him ‘discredited’ for example - do not address this problem of giving Wakefield a big national platform in the first place.  As Dave Jones puts it, “why do the media give a lone, discredited voice in the darkness an equal platform as the whole body of scientific evidence? Is that balance?”

On top of this, Wakefield gets his own entire article, a further 12 paragraphs apparently copied verbatim from a days-old press release, linked to prominently on the Indie’s homepage. This isn’t health journalism, it’s simple, unadulterated PR.

Earlier, Ben Goldacre asked Laurance the following on Twitter: “How on earth can the Independent justify running 12 paragraphs today on MMR by Wakefield himself?” Laurance replied, “So what do u suggest? That we ignore him and let him go on spreading poison? Or answer him, point by point, as we have done?”

There’s a difference though, isn’t there, between ‘not ignoring’ someone, and putting their opinions on the front page of a national newspaper; just as there is a difference between answering somebody’s claims, and republishing them verbatim on page 5 of the same national newspaper.

Jeremy Laurance has a history of reacting badly to the idea that health and science journalists deserve scrutiny. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that this is not an abstract public health debate between a few angry people on Twitter - he, and journalists like him, are putting the lives of real children at risk, their clumsy reporting stoking unwarranted fears about a safe vaccine.

Andrew Wakefield and supporters in 2010. Photo: Getty

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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"Michael Gove is a nasty bit of work": A Thatcherite's lonely crusade for technical colleges

Kenneth Baker, Margaret Thatcher's education secretary, has been in a war of words with one of his successors. 

When I meet Kenneth Baker, once Margaret Thatcher’s reforming education secretary, conversation quickly turns to an unexpected coincidence. We are old boys of the same school: a sixth-form college in Southport that was, in Baker’s day, the local grammar. Fittingly for a man enraged by the exclusion of technical subjects from the modern curriculum, he can only recall one lesson: carpentry.

Seven decades on, Lord Baker – who counts Sats, the national curriculum, league tables, and student loans among his innovations – is still preoccupied with technical education. His charity, the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, oversees university technical colleges (UTCs), the specialist free schools that work with businesses and higher education institutions to provide a vocational curriculum for students aged 14-19. He is also a working peer, and a doughty evangelist for technical education and apprenticeships in the upper chamber. 

But when we meet at the charity’s glass-panelled Westminster office at 4 Millbank, he is on the defensive – and with good reason. Recent weeks have been particularly unkind to the project that, aged 82, he still works full-time to promote. First, a technical college in Oldham, Greater Manchester, became the seventh to close its doors since 2015. In three years, not one of its pupils passed a single GCSE, and locals complained it had become a “dumping ground” for the most troubled and disruptive children from Oldham’s other schools (Baker agrees, and puts the closure down to “bad governorship and bad headship”). 

Then, with customary chutzpah, came Michael Gove. In the week of the closure, the former education secretary declared in his Times column that the UTCs project had failed. "The commonest error in politics," he wrote, quoting Lord Salisbury, "is sticking to the carcasses of dead policies". Baker is now embroiled in a remarkable – and increasingly bitter – war of words with his successor and one-time colleague.

It wasn't always this way. In 2013, with UTCs still in their infancy, he told the New Statesman the then education secretary was “a friend”, despite their disagreements on the curriculum. The bonhomie has not lasted. In the course of our hour-long conversation, Gove is derided as “a nasty bit of work”, “very vindictive”, “completely out of touch”, and “Brutus Gove and all the rest of it”. (Three days after we speak, Baker renews their animus with a blistering op-ed for The Telegraph, claiming Gove embraced UTCs about as warmly as “an undertaker”.)

In all of this, Gove, who speaks warmly of Baker, has presented himself as having been initially supportive of the project. He was, after all, the education secretary who gave them the green light. Not so, his one-time colleague says. While David Cameron (Baker's former PA) and George Osborne showed pragmatic enthusiasm, Gove “was pretty reluctant from the word go”.

“Gove has his own theory of education,” Baker tells me. He believes Gove is in thrall to the American educationalist E.D. Hirsch, who believes in focusing on offering children a core academic diet of subjects, whatever their background. "He doesn’t think that schools should worry about employability at all," Baker says. "He thinks as long as you get the basic education right, everything will be fine. That isn’t going to happen – it isn’t how life works!" 

Baker is fond of comparing Gove’s heavily academic English baccalaureate to the similarly narrow School Certificate he sat in 1951, as well as the curriculum of 1904 (there is seldom an interview with Baker that doesn’t feature this comparison). He believes his junior's divisive tenure changed the state sector for the worse: “It’s appalling what’s happening in our schools! The squeezing out of not only design and technology, but drama, music, art – they’re all going down at GCSE, year by year. Now children are just studying a basic eight subjects. I think that’s completely wrong.” 

UTCs, with their university sponsors, workplace ethos (teaching hours coincide with the standard 9-5 working day and pupils wear business dress), and specialist curricula, are Baker's solution. The 46 existing institutions teach 11,500 children, and there are several notable success stories. GCHQ has opened a cyber-security suite at the UTC in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, as part of a bid to diversify its workforce. Just 0.5 per cent of UTC graduates are unemployed, compared to 11.5 per cent of all 18-year-olds. 

But they are not without their critics. Teaching unions have complained that their presence fragments education provision and funding, and others point out that hard-up schools in disadvantaged areas have little desire or incentive to give up children – and the funding they bring – at 14. Ofsted rate twice as many UTCs as inadequate as they do outstanding. Gove doubts that the vocational qualifications on offer are as robust as their academic equivalents, or anywhere near as attractive for middle-class parents. He also considers 14 is too young an age for pupils to pursue a specialist course of vocational study.

Baker accepts that many of his colleges are seen as “useless, wastes of money, monuments to Baker’s vanity and all the rest of it”, but maintains the project is only just finding its legs. He is more hopeful about the current education secretary, Justine Greening, who he believes is an admirer. Indeed, UTCs could provide Greening with a trump card in the vexed debate over grammar schools – last year’s green paper suggested pupils would be able to join new selective institutions at 14, and Baker has long believed specialist academic institutions should complement UTCs.

Discussion of Theresa May’s education policy has tended to start and finish at grammar schools. But Baker believes the conversation could soon be dominated by a much more pressing issue: the financial collapse of multi-academy trusts and the prospect of an NHS-style funding crisis blighting the nation’s schools. Although his city technology colleges may have paved the way for the removal of more and more schools from the control of local authorities, he, perhaps surprisingly, defends a connection to the state.

“What is missing now in the whole education system is that broker in the middle, to balance the demands of education with the funds available," he says. "I think by 2020 all these multi-academy trusts will be like the hospitals... If MATs get into trouble, their immediate cry will be: ‘We need more money!’ We need more teachers, we need more resources, and all the rest of it!’."

It is clear that he is more alert to coming challenges, such as automation, than many politicians half his age. Halfway through our conversation, he leaves the room and returns enthusiastically toting a picture of an driverless lorry. It transpires that this Thatcherite is even increasingly receptive to the idea of the ultimate state handout: a universal basic income. “There’s one part of me that says: ‘How awful to give someone a sum for doing nothing! What are they going to do, for heaven’s sake, for Christ’s sake!’" he says. "But on the other hand, I think the drawback to the four-day working week or four-hour working day... I think it’s going to happen in your lifetime. If people are only working for a very short space of time, they will have to have some sort of basic income.” 

Predictably, the upshot of this vignette is that his beloved UTCs and their multi-skilled graduates are part of the solution. Friend and foe alike praise Baker’s indefatigable dedication to the cause. But, with the ranks of doubters growing and the axe likely to fall on at least one of its institutions again, it remains to be seen in what form the programme will survive.

Despite the ignominy of the last few weeks, however, Baker is typically forthright: “I sense a turning of the tide in our way now. But I still fight. I fight for every bloody one.”