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?
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 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.