Boseley, Sarah   The Greek Chorus  Dr. Andy Wakefield

The Walker-Smith Appeal, the British Media and the Boseley Problem

By John Stone

Sarah Boseley (centre in the photo) is the senior Guardian newspaper journalist who wrote on the occasion of the UK General Medical Council’s findings against Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues Prof  John Walker-Smith and Prof Simon Murch in January 2010:

"Opinion is divided in the medical establishment on the wisdom of pursuing Wakefield – and particularly his colleagues who played a lesser role in the drama – at the GMC. Some say there was a clear case to answer and that the GMC had no other option but others believe that no good can come of it."

What Boseley omitted to do as a decent journalist and a competent reporter was to tell her readership what the medical establishment was worried about. And what they were worried about may be by now coming back round to haunt both the medical establishment itself and the media, although no doubt damage limitation measures are already being put in a state of readiness.  The spectre came in the form of a UK Press Association report of Prof Walker-Smith’s High Court appeal misleadingly entitled ‘MMR row doctor decision was “fair”’  . However, underneath the headline the story begins to hint at the real matter:

“The decision to strike off an eminent doctor over the MMR jab controversy has been defended at the High Court as "just and fair - not wrong".

“The General Medical Council (GMC) admitted to a judge that "inadequate reasons" may have been given by a disciplinary panel that found Professor John Walker-Smith guilty of serious professional misconduct. Those reasons related to conflicts over expert evidence.

“But Joanna Glynn QC, appearing for the GMC, said: "In spite of inadequate reasons it is quite clear on overwhelming evidence that the charges are made out."

“Professor Walker-Smith is asking Mr Justice Mitting at London's High Court to rule that he was denied a fair hearing. On the fourth day of his challenge, the judge said that the case had been "complex and difficult from the start - it greatly troubles me".”

At stake in the hearing are essentially two issues: whether Prof Walker-Smith acted beyond his brief as a clinician in the care of the 12 children in the much disputed Lancet paper, and whether the paper had anything to do – as alleged – with the protocol (identified with Royal Free Hospital ethical approval 172-96) for a Legal Aid Board funded paper, or was just as the paper itself stated an “early report” on 12 children seen and investigated on the basis of clinical need. This problem has been perpetually hinted at but never clearly explained in the British media – we will call it for convenience “the Boseley problem” though it is very much the problem of other journalists too.

Following the allegations by journalist Brian Deer and doctor MP Evan Harris in 2004 that the Wakefield Lancet paper had been commissioned and paid for by the UK Legal Aid Board the first apparent dissent to appear was in an award winning article by Dr Ben Goldacre ‘Don't Dumb Me Down' , the son of a leading government epidemiologist and Oxford University professor, Michael J. Goldacre.  Goldacre junior wrote in September 2005:

“Now, even though popular belief in the MMR scare is - perhaps - starting to fade, popular understanding of it remains minimal: people periodically come up to me and say, isn't it funny how that Wakefield MMR paper turned out to be Bad Science after all? And I say: no. The paper always was and still remains a perfectly good small case series report, but it was systematically misrepresented as being more than that, by media that are incapable of interpreting and reporting scientific data.”

This statement refers to neither Deer or Harris, and what it does not tell you is that the issue as to whether the Lancet paper was a really a “fraud” or not hinged on if  it was “a perfectly good small case series report” as stated on this occasion by Ben Goldacre or if it was based on the protocol for the Legal Aid Board commission to which it bears little or no resemblance (and which the three doctors at the GMC were later to claim was never executed) as originally argued by Deer and Harris in 2004. At the same time the possibility that medical establishment was trying to hedge its bets against the failure of a flawed GMC prosecution is opened up by the fact that Dr Harris, himself, was on the jury which gave Goldacre his Association of British Science Writer’s award for the article  (note that page mistakenly attributes the article to John Gribben) .

Indeed, there was sequence of editorials around the time of that award (which took place in the summer of 2006) doubting the wisdom of prosecuting Andrew Wakefield and his forgotten colleagues, which included pieces in The Independent, the New Scientist,  by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick in Spiked Online and a little later by Dr Fiona Godlee in British Medical Journal calling for the prosecution to be called off .

All this led later to particular embarrassment for Ben Goldacre, whose vacillating position on the matter was reported on Age of Autism (Can We Have it Straight?) (Goldacre Challenged on Wakefield)  and who as late as November 2010 (and months after he had first welcomed the GMC verdict) was accurately telling Irish Health:

“But you have to remember this paper didn’t actually say MMR causes autism, it didn’t even speculate on that. It was accompanied by an editorial that said by the way people should be very clear that it doesn’t mean that MMR causes autism.

“Also, this was a 12 subject case series report - it was a description of only 12 children’s clinical anecdotes, and while this is not good evidence to say MMR causes autism, it is a perfectly legitimate thing to publish.”

The almost unavoidable conclusion is that large sections of the British media have always known that the “Wakefield” prosecution was based on an imposture, and have been holding their silence in contempt of fair reporting and of the public at large, and that these people are much more concerned about their own backs than they are about our children.

John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.