[back] Wakefield GMC Hearing 2007

The Cross-examination Begins, Begins, Begins, Begins

by Martin Walker MA for CryShame. www.cryshame.com

You have to hand it to Miss Smith, she has at least two abilities that shine like bright torches in an otherwise dark cave. She does both ‘procrastination' and ‘arguing the toss' with distinction. In this last week her gifts have been displayed to singular effect.

On Thursday Miss Smith called off the prosecution cross-examination just as everyone thought it was about to start. When procrastinating her stories are reasonably plausible. Miss Smith used the grown up legal equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework', in order to begin the cross examination on the following morning. ‘The defence has taken us completely by surprise', she said in all seriousness, but just as the teacher suspects the school- kid who doesn't have a dog, every observer of the hearing knew that the defence had claimed nothing that had not already been argued and it had wound up five days before.

‘Arguing the toss' is Miss Smith's form of cross-examination. It's a very simple technique, the witness says ‘I didn't' and Miss Smith says, ‘You did'. A real expert like Miss Smith can maintain this ersatz cross-examination for an afternoon without drawing breath.

Before we look more closely at the beginning of the prosecution cross-examination of Dr Wakefield, by Miss Smith, I have to recount what happened on the morning of Friday 11 April.   Simply put, someone organised an ambush of Dr Wakefield to coincide with the first day of the prosecution cross-examination.

This ambush was organised by professionals and was unusual in the sense that  the media normally only rise to attending court cases, inquiries or tribunals on a limited number of occasions; the opening of the prosecution, perhaps the presentation of the defence and the appearance of ‘important' witnesses. In all my days hanging around the courts, I have never known the prosecution to organise a media ambush on the opening of the prosecution cross examination of a defendant.

Before we look at who might have organised the ambush, lets see what it entailed. When Dr Wakefield and Carmel arrived at the GMC, they were filmed going in. Inside the GMC on the third floor, the press room was packed with journalists and as is increasingly the case, Dear Brian was holding forth giving a press briefing, while next door GMC media personnel were interviewed by the BBC. By 11.00 am, Carol Stott was receiving emails about the BBC 24 Hour News report that contained the utterly untruthful claim that parents had paid Wakefield to discredit the MMR vaccination.

Fortunately Carol was able to confront the journalist who had put out the untruthful BBC report, telling her that the accusation she made against Dr Wakefield had never been a part of any charges against him. It would, replied the journalist, be taken out of the news report but there was no possibility of a retraction. The journalist went on to explain that she didn't really know the story and that BBC journalists were sent out to cover the event at random times because they couldn't afford to have someone in there the whole time. Random times which coincided, presumably by sheer chance, with the first day of the prosecution and the first day of cross-examination.

As misrepresentations continued to go out ‘over the wires' a call was made to Max Clifford's office. The fact that this happened at all was one thing – causing a couple of journalists to smirk behind their hands that anyone should imagine he'd actually turn up. Having him walk in an hour or so later was quite another thing – and had the same journalists introducing themselves, in a fluster and asking ‘ er …whether…. er , there were any problems with the coverage so far, sir….' Mr Clifford arrived about 20 minutes before Miss Smith closed early for the day and in my opinion, played a master card when he told journalists that he was there to support CryShame and that as the organisation had no money, he was offering his services free of charge. To be honest, I thought that this fact was more likely to strike the fear of God into journalists than the actual sight of him at the GMC. Quite what he is tasked with is intriguing….no doubt we shall see.

It struck me first thing in the morning that there might have been a connection between Miss Smith 's calling off her cross-examination and the media ambush of Friday morning. However, sucker that I am for Miss Smith's steely charms, I couldn't quite bring myself to see her conspiring with the media. This leaves only two usual suspects, the GMC itself and Dear Brian and while I have the utmost respect for Dear's capabilities, I doubt whether he could call the media to the GMC, so this leaves us with the GMC itself.

What a mockery of justice and legal process. According to the GMC, they brought the complaint, they brought the prosecution, they chose the jury (panel), they are holding the hearing and they enact the sentence; thank god we don't live in a totalitarian society and thank god, we don't live in the kind of society like Russia for example where the government can reach out to bogus professional organisations and get kangaroo courts to do their dirty work.

*      *      *

This last week has been disintegrated. On the days the panel did sit and hear evidence, it closed early, and on two days Tuesday and Wednesday the panel didn't sit. On Thursday the GMC needed time to organise the media in support of Miss Smith's cross examination and so the panel again broke at mid-day.

Following the evidence in chief of Dr Wakefield, counsel for Professor Murch and Professor Walker Smith both took the opportunity to cross-examine him. Counsel works in mysterious ways and it was not possible to understand the real purpose of many of the cross examination questions. It appeared more a matter of house keeping than anything else, the two counsel , needing to clarify points that will rise again during the evidence in chief of their two clients.

By Friday morning the hearing was ready to hear Miss Smith's cross examination of Dr Wakefield. The central point that Miss Smith sought to develop during this first day, was that all the Lancet paper children were involved in a research project that did nothing to help them clinically. In fact she seemed to be arguing that the whole department was involved solely in a research project. It was as if Miss Smith had been asleep during the whole of the presentation of the defence and now came roaring back into court to voice the prosecution case for a second time. Miss Smith is anything but organic in her presentation; she assembles her case like a blade-runner-replicant with memory loss.

Central to her argument was that Dr Wakefield was a research worker and all the energies of the Royal Free Experimental Gastrointestinal Unit were focused upon research. Clearly there was, argued Miss Smith, no intention of doing the individual children any good.

She alighted on one of the protocols drafted by Dr Wakefield and handed in to the Research Ethics Committee. ‘Look here', she said, ‘This is entirely in the language of research' it didn't she said, ‘offer any medical treatment for individual patients'.

Dr Wakefield eventually replied with the simple truth that ‘this was a research protocol made out for the purposes of gaining ethical committee approval. The clinical work is not mentioned in this protocol because this does not have to obtain ethical committee approval'. But it was as if Miss Smith was speaking another language, or her batteries had been primed for only one response. ‘Yes', she said, but this protocol is entirely in the language of research and suggests nothing of what might be done to the advantage of individual children'.

To his credit, Dr Wakefield tried differently constructed answers to the same question asked over again. I'm afraid, however, that a sense of claustrophobia and an unsettling feeling of Groundhog Day, began to catch up with me. Miss Smith's cross examination technique was all I had suspected it might be and like a Brit in a foreign country, when she couldn't win her point by closely following the argument, she not only repeated herself but also raised her voice.

Dr Wakefield is certainly not alone in being concerned about next week's continued cross-examination. Like birds trapped in a greenhouse, I fear we will all find ourselves in the wake of Miss Smith dashing ourselves senseless against its glass panes.