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.

Photo: Getty
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The Conservative-DUP deal is great news for the DUP, but bad news for Theresa May

The DUP has secured a 10 per cent increase in Northern Ireland's budget in return for propping up the Prime Minister.

Well, that’s that then. Theresa May has reached an accord with the Democratic Unionist Party to keep herself in office. Among the items: the triple lock on pensions will remain in place, and the winter fuel allowance will not be means-tested across the United Kingdom. In addition, the DUP have bagged an extra £1bn of spending for Northern Ireland, which will go on schools, hospitals and roads. That’s more than a five per cent increase in Northern Ireland’s budget, which in 2016-7 was just £9.8bn.

The most politically significant item will be the extension of the military covenant – the government’s agreement to look after veterans of war and their families – to Northern Ireland. Although the price tag is small, extending priority access to healthcare to veterans is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland, where they have served not just overseas but in Northern Ireland itself. Sensitivities about the role of the Armed Forces in the Troubles were why the Labour government of Tony Blair did not include Northern Ireland in the covenant in 2000, when elements of it were first codified.

It gives an opportunity for the SNP…

Gina Miller, whose court judgement successfully forced the government into holding a vote on triggering Article 50, has claimed that an increase in spending in Northern Ireland will automatically entail spending increases in Wales and Scotland thanks to the Barnett formula. This allocates funding for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland based on spending in England or on GB-wide schemes.

However, this is incorrect. The Barnett formula has no legal force, and, in any case, is calculated using England as a baseline. However, that won’t stop the SNP MPs making political hay with the issue, particularly as “the Vow” – the last minute promise by the three Unionist party leaders during the 2014 independence referendum – promised to codify the formula. They will argue this breaks the spirit, if not the letter of the vow. 

…and Welsh Labour

However, the SNP will have a direct opponent in Wales. The Welsh Labour party has long argued that the Barnett formula, devised in 1978, gives too little to Wales. They will take the accord with Northern Ireland as an opportunity to argue that the formula should be ripped up and renegotiated.

It risks toxifying the Tories further

The DUP’s socially conservative positions, though they put them on the same side as their voters, are anathema to many voters in England, Scotland and Wales. Although the DUP’s positions on abortion and equal marriage will not be brought to bear on rUK, the association could leave a bad taste in the mouth for voters considering a Conservative vote next time. Added to that, the bumper increase in spending in Northern Ireland will make it even harder to win support for continuing cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom.

All of which is moot if the Conservatives U-Turn on austerity

Of course, all of these problems will fade if the Conservatives further loosen their deficit target, as they did last year. Turning on the spending taps in England, Scotland and Wales is probably their last, best chance of turning around the grim political picture.

It’s a remarkable coup for Arlene Foster

The agreement, which ticks a number of boxes for the DUP, caps off an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster. The significant increase in spending in Northern Ireland – equivalent to the budget of the entirety of the United Kingdom going up by £70bn over two years  – is only the biggest ticket item. The extension of the military covenant to Northern Ireland appeals to two longstanding aims of the DUP. The first is to end “Northern Ireland exceptionalism” wherever possible, and the second is the red meat to their voters in offering better treatment to veterans.

It feels like a lifetime ago when you remember that in March 2017, Foster was a weakened figure having led the DUP into its worst election result since the creation of the devolved assembly at Stormont.

The election result, in which the DUP took the lion’s share of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland, is part of that. But so too are the series of canny moves made by Foster in the aftermath of her March disappointment. By attending Martin McGuinness’s funeral and striking a more consensual note on some issues, she has helped shed some of the blame for the collapse of power-sharing, and proven herself to be a tricky negotiator.

Conservatives are hoping it will be plain sailing for them, and the DUP from now on should take note. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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