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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My latest Brexit worry? What will happen to our footballers

My week, from why we should “keep on running” to mansplaining in the Commons.

It’s a funny old game, politics. Just when you think you’ve got your head round the myriad consequences of the Brexit vote, yet another one springs to mind. This week, I stumbled upon another sector in which Britain leads the world that will be thrown into uncertainty by Brexit: football.

The background of this moment of clarity is that I’ve been trying to rescue a youth centre in my constituency that the council can no longer afford to run. Thankfully, the brilliant New Ferry Rangers want to take it over as their clubhouse. I tell the chair of the FA, Greg Clarke, about our plans.

In doing so, I realise that the European Union’s competition rules apply to the beautiful game, just as they do to every other business sector in the UK. In practical terms, the absence of these continental rules opens up the possibility of changes to who can play, own and broadcast our wonderful yet expensive national game.

“Will Bosman still apply?” a colleague asks me with relish, referring to the 1995 European Court of Justice ruling that allows EU footballers to transfer easily from one club to another. Who knows? Who knows who knows?

 

Three lions on the shirt

The football dilemma is a microcosm of the wider immigration issue. Some imagine that by barring foreign talent from our shores, we will advantage British-born players. If fewer foreigners are allowed to play and English lads get more playing time in the Premier League, perhaps leaving the EU might result in the long-wished-for success for the England national team?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. If you don’t have the skills to play alongside the best in the world, you probably don’t have the skills to beat the best in the world. As the Spanish La Liga and the German Bundesliga have shown, there is no incompatibility in allowing league teams to source great players from around the world and still having your home-grown stars come together to win international tournaments.

The most important intervention is to enable your people to develop the skills that they need to compete. This is as true for football as it is for everything else.

 

Hammond’s gilt trip

It’s Treasury questions in the House of Commons this week, and I want to ask about the cost of British government debt, which dwarfs even the monstrous levels of cash in modern football. It is a bitter irony that, following the global financial crisis that helped the Tories win the 2010 general election, the slow-burn economic crisis that the party has since brought about with David Cameron’s botched referendum has received scant attention. (Particularly in comparison with the Westminster lobby’s anxiety about Labour’s record on debt and the deficit.)

British debt owned by foreign investors has now breached the high-water mark of £500bn, its highest-ever level. As the value of sterling tumbles, we can only wonder what risks may lie ahead, as our creditors watch the value of these investments fall.

The Chancellor responds to me by explaining how gilts work. He doesn’t answer my question at all, however, leaving us all to wonder what horrors the Budget in March might bring. It’s a lovely reminder that I am not immune to mansplaining, even in the House of Commons, and that we call it “parliamentary questions” and not “parliamentary answers”.

It’s also a demonstration of how little economic policymaking is going on. The great nation of John Maynard Keynes, the inventor of global economic institutions that have steadied the world, is now reduced to skulking around Europe, seeking an embarrassing exit from the union that cemented his postwar peace settlement. Once, we led in Europe. Now we follow as the hard right barks its orders.

 

Trading down

Listening to Theresa May’s Brexit speech later on Tuesday, my heart sinks again. She puts paid to the idea that we might stay in the single market. Reducing immigration is her life’s work, apparently. It is a grave error and one that must be resisted. The biggest challenge to our country is not that people are prepared to come to work here and pay their taxes here. New Britons deserve our respect.

 

A sporting chance

On Wednesday, I meet the Speaker to discuss the ongoing work to build on the legacy of our friend Jo Cox.

Through these hard days, I am reminded constantly of two things. First, the words of her brilliant husband, Brendan, who said that we will fight the hate that killed her. Jo never gave up on a monumental challenge, and all our kids need us not to lose heart now. Second, that my experience of Jo was that she focused on the challenge ahead and never wallowed. She was the best of us, and I wish I were more like her.

One thing that Jo and I had in common was that we took part in the annual House of Commons tug of war. Unlike the Premier League, we women of the political world cannot boast world-beating talent in our sport. But we demonstrate the spirit of This Girl Can, Sport England’s campaign to empower women in their sporting endeavours (which returns to our screens soon).

 

Making tracks

While we wrestle in politics with the horrific events that happened last year and the risks ahead, I am trying to demonstrate the This Girl Can spirit and keep up with my physical activity. I would love to be better at football, the sport I adore, but there are not that many opportunities to play, given the parliamentary timetable. So I get up early for a jog along the Thames and tell myself that going slowly is faster than never going at all. Without a doubt, for progressives right now, “Keep on Running” is our theme tune.

Alison McGovern is the MP for Wirral South (Labour)

Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era