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.

CREDIT: GETTY
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Barb Jungr’s diary: Apart-hotels, scattered families and bringing the Liver Birds back to Liverpool

My Liver Birds reboot, set in the present day with new music and a new story, is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre.

For the last three years I’ve been writing a musical. Based on Carla Lane and Myra Taylor’s Liver Birds characters Beryl and Sandra, but set in the present day with new music and a new story, it is coming to life at the Royal Court Theatre – in Liverpool, appropriately. Amazingly, the sun shines as the train ambles into Lime Street, where Ken Dodd’s statue has recently been customised with a feather duster tickling stick and some garlands of orange and lime green. Outside the station, composer Mike Lindup and I buy a Big Issue. We have a scene opening Act Two with a Big Issue seller and we are superstitious. We check into our “apart-hotel”. Apart-hotel is a new word and means a hotel room with a kitchen area you will never, ever use.

At the theatre everyone hugs as though their lives depend on it; we are all aware we are heading into a battle the outcome of which is unknown. There will be no more hugging after this point till opening night as stress levels increase day by day. I buy chocolate on the way back as there’s a fridge in my apart-hotel and I ought to use it for something.

Ships in the night

There’s no point in being in Liverpool without running by the river, so I leap up (in geriatric fashion) and head out into the rain. You’d think, since I grew up in the north-west and cannot ever remember experiencing any period of consecutive sunny days here, that I’d have brought a waterproof jacket with me. I didn’t. It springs from optimism. Misplaced in this case, as it happens. I return soaking but with a coconut latte. Every cloud.

We have been in the theatre for seven hours. Everything has been delayed. The cast are amusing themselves by singing old television themes. They have just made short shrift of Bonanza and have moved on to The Magic Roundabout. We may all be going very slightly mad.

As hours dwindle away with nothing being achieved, Mike and I pop to the theatre next door to enjoy someone else’s musical. In this case, Sting’s. It’s wonderfully palate-cleansing and I finally manage to go to sleep with different ear worms about ships and men, rather than our own, about Liverpool and women.

Wood for the trees

This morning “tech” begins (during which every single move of the cast and set, plus lighting, costume, prop and sound cues must be decided and logged on a computer). Problems loom around every piece of scenery. Our smiles and patience wear thin.

By the end of the 12-hour session we know we have the most patient, professional cast in the known cosmos. I, on the other hand, am a lost cause. I fret and eat, nervously, doubting every decision, every line, every lyric. Wondering how easy it would be to start over, in forestry perhaps? There is a drug deal going on across the road in the street outside the hotel. My apart-hotel kitchen remains as new.

First preview

I slept like a log. (All those years of working with Julian Clary make it impossible not to add, “I woke up in the fireplace”.) At the crack of dawn we’re cutting scenes in the Royal Court café like hairdressers on coke. Today is ladies’ day at Aintree, which feels apropos; tonight we open Liver Birds Flying Home, here.

The spirit of Carla Lane, who died in 2016, always dances around our consciousness when we are writing. She was very good to us when we began this project, and she was incredibly important to my teenage self, gazing out for role models across the cobblestones.

I grew up in Rochdale, a first-generation Brit. My parents had come here after the war, and what family we had was scattered to the four winds, some lost for ever and some found much later on, after the Velvet Revolution. I had a coterie of non-related “aunties” who felt sorry for us. Ladies with blue rinses, wearing mothball-smelling fur coats in cold houses with Our Lady of Fátima statues lit by votive candles in every conceivable alcove. To this day, the smell of incense brings it all back. Yet the northern matriarchy is a tough breed and I’m happy to carry some of that legacy with pride.

Seeing the theatre fill with people is terrifying and exciting in equal measure. We’ve had to accept that the finale isn’t in tonight’s show because of lack of technical time. I’m far from thrilled. The show, however, has a life of its own and the actors surf every change with aplomb. The audience cheers, even without the finale. Nonetheless, I slouch home in despair. Is it too late to change my name?

Matinee day

The fire alarm is going off. I know that because I’m awake and it’s 4am. As I stand in reception among the pyjama-clad flotsam and jetsam of the apart-hotel, I suspect I’m not the only one thinking: if only they’d had alarms this annoyingly loud in Grenfell. I don’t go back to sleep. I rewrite the last scene and discuss remaining changes for the morning production meeting with my co-writer, George.

The Saturday afternoon performance (which now includes the finale) receives a standing ovation in the circle. The ratio of women to men in the audience is roughly five to one. In the evening performance it is 50/50, so I’m curious to see how Beryl and Sandra’s story plays to the chaps who’ve been dragged out on a Saturday night with their wives. In the pub after the show a man tells Lesley, the actress playing present-day Beryl, how moved he had been by what he’d seen and heard.

A few years ago I stood behind Miriam Margolyes as we were about to go on stage at the Royal Festival Hall in a Christmas show. She turned to me, saying, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We agreed: “Because we can’t do anything else!” I suspect forestry is out of the question at this juncture. 

“Liver Birds Flying Home” is at the Royal Court, Liverpool, until 12 May.

Barb Jungr is an English singer, songwriter, composer and writer.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge