Anything to sell a few copies

The Independent has aspirations to be a serious, responsible newspaper, so what’s it doing putting a story about Andrew Wakefield on its front page?

Martin Robbins would like to know.

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.

And they’re still doing it, now, today.

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.

The Indy headline quotes Wakefield saying “Measles outbreak in Wales proves I was right.”

That’s a sickeningly irresponsible headline.

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.

And what for? There is no “controversy.” There’s no news (apart from the measles outbreak itself). What can possibly be the point of giving Wakefield lashings of new oxygen?

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.

How a journalist can fail to grasp such an obvious and important point is beyond me.


  1. says

    How a journalist can fail to grasp such an obvious and important point is beyond me.

    The answer isn’t money or advantage in the promotion stakes but self-deception. The feeling is that maybe I can’t do much about this but one day, if I keep my head down, I will be a position to right, not just this wrong, but many of the other wrongs of society. The problem is, as my grandma taught me, tomorrow never comes. You have to act now; if you don’t you may as well not act at all.

  2. otrame says

    The rage I feel for anti-vaxxers is not theoretical. One of my closest friends had a beautiful little baby boy who spent months 2-6 of his life in the hospital, nearly dying several times, suffering horribly, and ending up alive but with badly scarred lungs, from whooping cough. We no longer have the herd immunity to protect very young children and those who cannot, usually because they have damaged immune systems, get vaccinated.

    I rarely hate people, but Wakefield has probably cause more suffering and death than any non-governmental, non-church person in history. And he is STILL living on the proceeds. Fucker.

  3. Ulysses says

    Let’s not forget that Wakefield had his license to practice medicine revoked because he “acted dishonestly and irresponsibly” against the interests of his patients.

  4. phere says

    Otrame, I wholeheartedly agree with you re: Wakefield. How much irreversible damage has he cause? We are just now beginning to see the results – and we have a long way to go yet before his vileness reaches full potential. Did your friend refuse to vax her child or was he immuno-suppressed? So disheartening to hear of his struggle…poor lil guy. I live in the Bay Area (California) which has a very high rate of anti-vaxxers due to the “crunchy” mom movement. I have a 3 yo and I detest the fact that he is now at risk regardless of what I do, and the fact that the anti-vaxxers have the religious loophole in public school really makes me irate. Dr. Paul Offitt was kind enough to give me his books and I learned a whole lot about the anti-vax movement that really startled me. It says something about our society as a whole when we can snub life-saving vaccines because we think we are smarter than doctors, scientists, the CDC, etc.

  5. Dunc says

    I’m becoming increasingly convinced that, faced with rapidly declining sales and advertising revenues, a number of major newspapers have decided to adopt a strategy of deliberate trolling. The keep putting hugely controversial and provocative “stories” on the front page which simply aren’t news, never mind front-page news.

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