Memo to Brian Lawrence: You’re fired!
The deceptive tactic of “blagging” – which includes using a false identity to gain information – has been banned by The Sunday Times of London, the newspaper Brian Deer was working for when he passed himself off as “Brian Lawrence” to get interviews with parents of severely disabled children.
“The Sunday Times has quietly banned its reporters from employing subterfuge in the pursuit of stories,” the Guardian reported August 5.
Deer, who in response to earlier articles in this series recently described himself as “immensely proud of the subterfuge,” said the interviews were crucial to making the case that Dr. Andrew Wakefield committed fraud in the controversial Early Report about developmental regression and bowel disease after the MMR shot. The British Medical Journal made use of information Deer obtained by masquerading as “Lawrence” – complete with a bogus Sunday Times e-mail address in that name -- to allege in January that Wakefield committed fraud.
The parents Deer tricked have stood by Wakefield and the integrity of the Early Report about a dozen children, including theirs, prompting Deer to claim they are “conspiring” with Wakefield to make money. But now even the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times has forbidden the tactic Deer employed, leaving the British Medical Journal holding the blag, so to speak.
In the 1998 Early Report by Wakefield and 12 co-authors at London’s Royal Free Hospital, published in the Lancet, parents of eight of the 12 children linked their children’s symptoms to the MMR, but the authors wrote that further research was needed to determine if a connection existed. Wakefield subsequently urged that the three vaccines be administered separately pending that research, triggering a huge controversy. An investigation of the Early Report sparked by Deer led the Lancet to retract it in 2010, and the General Medical Council pulled Wakefield’s license to practice medicine the same year.
This series of articles examines the basis for the BMJ’s claim that Wakefield, and Wakefield alone, perpetrated “an elaborate fraud,” a claim the BMJ and subsequently mainstream media have adopted as fact. Even though all but one of the parents has stood by Wakefield’s research – and that one parent’s comments were grossly mischaracterized in the BMJ -- Wakefield is now widely described as discredited and any link between vaccines and autism as debunked.
“Blagging” is a “shadowy technique,” in the words of the BBC, expressly prohibited by Britain’s Data Protection Act of 1996. The act forbids “knowingly or recklessly obtaining or disclosing personal data or information without the consent of the data controller.” The Act makes an exception for information clearly in the public interest, but that would appear to apply to criminals, wayward public officials and corrupt corporate executives, not parents of the disabled. The Sunday Times did acknowledge Deer’s use of a pseudonym, but said it was because pharmaceutical companies sought to block his inquiries. Drugmakers would presumably have been delighted with Deer’s crusade against parents who claimed their products permanently disabled their children.
Regardless, the Sunday Times appears to have washed its hands of the practice altogether, although they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the soap and water.
“The ban is understood is understood to have ‘come from the very top’ of News International according to insiders,” the Guardian reported, “and to have been ordered in the past month following the outcry over revelations that the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler was hacked and messages deleted.
“As a result, it is understood that the paper's editor, John Witherow, told his reporting staff not to use pseudonyms or alter egos despite the fact that such practices are allowed under law and in the Press Complaints Commission editors' code of practice for stories that are in the public interest. ‘We have been forced to do it,’ a source said.”
Ironically, the ban followed by three weeks a defense of the practice – and of Deer in particular – by Witherow. He wrote a column – subtitled “As the storm over phone hacking rages on, the editor of The Sunday Times says deception can sometimes be the only path to the truth” -- in which he defended the paper’s hardball tactics and singled out important investigations by the newspaper including “Brian Deer’s outstanding work on exposing the doctor behind the false MMR scare.” He rejected any criticism of the newspaper’s past conduct, citing the public interest.
“In other words,” he said in reference to another high-profile Sunday Times investigation, “the ends justified the means.”
The Sunday Times has denied charges made this month by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown that the paper “blagged” him, with Sunday Times personnel posing as Brown to gain access to his bank account. The real Gordon Brown referred the matter to police and said those who gathered the data are “known criminals” tied to the “criminal underworld.”
As I’ve reported, regardless of whether the Sunday Times approved of Deer’s methods at the time – he says they did – the publication of quotes from parents who didn’t give their approval would seem to violate the British Medical Journal’s standards, which require written consent from anyone whose medical information is disclosed. No such consent was asked for in this case.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism. He is the co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-made Epidemic, to be published in paperback in September by Thomas Dunne Books.