A deer in the headlights

Monday, 16th February 2009

Eleven days ago, Brian Deer renewed his onslaught against Andrew Wakefield in the Sunday Times. I wrote about it here and made the point that, since Deer’s allegations sparked the General Medical Council case against Wakefield which would not have occurred without his involvement, he was effectively a principal player in the story he was reporting — a clear conflict of interest and breach of journalistic standards.

After I noted this, an American TV show last week accused Deer of journalistic misconduct in reporting a story in which he was a major player without acknowledging this fact. Deer has been trying to deny this ever since.

First he threatened to sue the TV station, denying that he had laid the initial complaint which formed the bulk of the GMC inquiry and claiming instead that the GMC had approached him for information about Wakefield following his stories:

I did not lay the initial complaint against Wakefield. This allegation is a fabrication, albeit rather a small one in the MMR issue. The GMC asked me for my journalistic evidence arising from published stories. It was my public duty to supply my findings to this statutory regulator.

Well, various people did think that Brian Deer’s complaint was the trigger for the GMC inquiry. One of those people, it appears, was Brian Deer. Screenshots record that, on his website, Deer previously boasted that he had instigated the GMC hearing. In May 2007, his website noted:

GMC inquiry: After submissions by Brian Deer to the UK General Medical Council, the doctors’ regulatory body announced a public inquiry in to the affair. Sunday Times December 12 2004.

By last week, however, the wording had been changed to:

GMC inquiry: After Brian Deer’s reports, the UK General Medical Council, the doctors’ regulatory body, announced a public inquiry into the affair. The Sunday Times, December 12 2004.

In May 2007, he wrote on his website:

Pending a General Medical Council [GMC] fitness to practice panel hearing - arising from the investigation set out on this page... (my emphasis)

Those highlighted words have now vanished from the website, which uses instead this  formulation:

Following Brian Deer’s investigation, and charges laid against Wakefield, Walker-Smith and Murch by the General Medical Council...

The perception that the GMC was investigating Deer's complaints about Wakefield was shared by no less a person than a High Court judge. In a libel ruling in November 2006 arising from a Channel 4 Dispatches programme about the Wakefield affair, Mr Justice Eady noted that:

Well before the programme was broadcast [Mr Deer] had made a complaint to the GMC about the Claimant. His communications were made on 25 February, 12 March and 1 July 2004. In due course, on 27 August of the same year, the GMC sent the Claimant a letter notifying him of the information against him.

Last week, Deer claimed that Eady was ‘mistaken’ and that he had not been the ‘complainant’ in the GMC hearing. In the current narrative of the affair posted on his website, after noting that on March 6 2004 some of the authors of the original Lancet paper ‘retracted’ the interpretation that had been placed upon it, he goes on:

Shortly before this retraction [for the retracted “interpretation” text, check the opening abstract of the Lancet paper], the General Medical Council announced its own investigation into the affair, which it said raised questions over Wakefield’s fitness to practice medicine. GMC officials then approached Brian Deer and asked if, in the public interest, he would pass them his findings, and later requested him to supply his research materials - including pivotal documents - to the council’s retained lawyers, at the firm of Field Fisher Waterhouse [FFW] in London. Deer, however, is not the complainant in the case - which was brought on the GMC’s own initiative - and his information has been compounded with submissions, including complaints, from dozens of other sources, including parents directly involved.

To prove that he was not the complainant, he cites a letter written to him in May 2005 by the GMC’s lawyers, Field Fisher Waterhouse. This ran as follows:

I write further to your telephone conversation with Peter Swain last Thursday seeking clarification in relation to your role in the above General Medical Council (“GMC”) proceedings.

I have now had the opportunity to review the GMC’s files. My understanding is that further to your articles appearing in the Sunday Times in February 2004 in relation to your investigation into Dr Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine, you were approached by GMC case officer Tim Cox-Brown, who asked you to supply the GMC with further information regarding this matter.

Your situation as a journalist who has carried out an investigation into the conduct of the practitioners in question is unusual for the GMC. I note from the GMC and FFW’s correspondence files that there does appear to have been some confusion in relation to your role in these proceedings.

In GMC ‘complainant’ cases an individual will have approached the GMC with a complaint against a particular practitioner. If the GMC decides to hold an inquiry, legal representation is offered to the complainant for preparation and presentation of the case before the Professional Conduct Committee.

As stated in Peter Swain’s letter to you dated 16 December 2004, your role in this matter is that of ‘informant’ rather than ‘complainant’. This is due to the fact that the conduct of the practitioners in question has not affected you directly and clearly involves issues of a wider public interest...

But what Deer does not reveal is that on February 25, 2004, three days after his article attacking Wakefield had been published in the Sunday Times, he had written to the GMC in these terms:

Following an extensive inquiry for the Sunday Times into the origins of the public panic over MMR, I write to ask your permission to lay before you an outline of evidence that you may consider worthy of evaluation with respect of the possibility of serious professional misconduct on the part of the above named registered medical practitioners. [Andrew Wakefield, John Walker Smith and Simon Murch.]

If Deer had previously been approached by the GMC for this information -- presumably in the two days that elapsed between publication of his article and this letter -- this was a strange form of words. For he made no mention that it had thus approached him. Instead, he asked the GMC for permission to lay out his evidence before it. So how can this apparently direct contradiction be explained?

One possibility is that Deer had not previously been approached by the GMC, and that there was some other explanation for its lawyers’ letter to him (it does not say, for example, precisely when its case officer had asked him for further information).

But if the GMC had indeed already approached Deer before he wrote to it, then it follows that his form of words was highly disingenuous – purportedly asking for permission to present his information while concealing the fact that it had already asked him to do so. And if this was the case, the GMC would seem to have been complicit in this contrived fiction.

Then consider the timing of all this. Deer says the GMC approached him for information after it had announced its own investigation into Wakefield and his colleagues.  Deer’s Sunday Times article appeared on February 22 2004.  On February 23, the Times reported:

Investigators for the GMC would speak to Dr Wakefield before deciding what action to take. A GMC spokesman said: ‘We are concerned by the allegations’.

On February 24 the Daily Mail reported that the GMC

said it would be considering what action may be necessary.

On February 25, Deer wrote his letter to the GMC accusing Wakefield and his colleagues of serious professional misconduct. At that stage, the GMC had merely said it was considering what action to take. So whether the GMC approached him before he wrote that letter or not, it was Deer whose complaint was fundamental to the eventual GMC hearing and whose allegations – reinforced by two further letters of complaint to the GMC during 2004 —  have formed the bulk of, if not all, the matters it has been investigating.

The GMC itself said Deer’s role was confusing; indeed, its lawyers’ letter to him was apparently in response to his appeal to clear up the confusion.  But the question of who actually made the first approach to whom is surely beside the point — as is the distinction between ‘complainant’ and ‘informant’, which is clearly a technicality resulting solely from the fact that Deer was not himself personally involved with these doctors. By any standard, his letter of February 25 was a complaint to the GMC.

The overwhelmingly important point — reinforced by these letters —remains that Deer was absolutely central to the GMC’s investigation. Deer did not merely supply information.  His letter laid before the GMC allegations of serious professional misconduct. Moreover, whatever its technical status in the eyes of the GMC it was presented as a formal complaint, giving the full names of the doctors and their registered medical practitioner numbers and phrased in officialese. The GMC lawyers’ letter refers to further meetings with him on 24 February 2005 and 7 March 2005. None of this involvement was mentioned in his story in last week’s Sunday Times.

But what about the GMC’s own use of Brian Deer? In his book MMR Science and Fiction: Exploring the Vaccine Crisis, the Lancet editor Richard Horton provides the following startling cameo from the political crisis that engulfed the GMC in February 2004 when, during the weekend of  Deer’s Sunday Times article and the denunciation of Wakefield by the Lancet, the then Health Secretary Dr John Reid demanded the GMC hold an inquiry into the Wakefield affair:

Indeed, the GMC seemed nonplussed by Reid’s intervention. The best their spokeswoman could say was: ‘We are concerned by these allegations and will be looking at what action, if any, may be necessary’. In truth, they had not a clue where to begin. At a dinner I attended on 23 February, one medical regulator and I discussed the Wakefield case. He seemed unsure of how the Council could play a useful part in resolving the confusion. As we talked over coffee while the other dinner guests were departing, he scribbled down some possible lines of investigation, and passed me his card, suggesting that I contact him directly if anything sprang to mind. He seemed keen to pursue Wakefield, especially given ministerial interest. Here was professionally led regulation of doctors in action — notes exchanged over liqueurs in a beautifully panelled room of one of medicine’s most venerable institutions.

Two days after this reported exchange, Deer wrote to the GMC asking permission to lay out his allegations before it. So if, as Deer maintains, the GMC had previously approached him for his information, then from Horton’s account it looks as if the GMC found in his claims a way to respond to the pressure from Reid for an inquiry. This pressure had itself been occasioned by the Lancet’s denunciation, which had in turn been provoked by Deer’s allegations.  So if this version of events is correct, the GMC solicited Deer’s allegations — while purporting to be their passive recipient — to provide it with the means to throw the book at Wakefield et al and thus pacify the Health Secretary. If that is true, then the GMC was party to a deception in the pursuit of a politically driven attack.

Now here’s another strange thing. Last week there was a big vaccine damage judgement in the US – the ‘Cedillo’ case – in which the court said the Wakefield theory about MMR was out to lunch in la-la land. This is what Deer posted on the Left Brain Right Brain website in the wake of that case:

That said, I’m also very proud that, like the GMC, the US government sought my help in mounting its case in Cedillo, copiously borrowing pages of evidence from my website and displaying some in court. I was surprised by this. I assumed that they would have sophisticated contacts with other governments and with industry, and could pretty much get what they wanted. However, on a number of occasions I would come home, find an email from the department of justice asking me for a document, and see that the next day it was being run in court. Bit of a seat of the pants job by the DoJ (brought about by the plaintiffs changing their case at the last minute). Indeed, I recall supplying a key document on the O’Leary lab business, which the DoJ didn’t seem to know about just weeks before the hearing. Hence the late surfacing of Bustin and Chadwick. It was me wot done that, and I’m glad. I don’t say these things to boast, only perhaps to wonder why — if there are all kinds of grand conspiracies behind the defence of vaccine safety — governments and regulators are so untogether that a mere journalist can get ahead of them in the game.

If his boast is true, it would seem that the US court — whose ruling looks pretty thin to me — arrived at its conclusion based on Deer’s allegations. In other words, two major quasi-legal hearings relating to Andrew Wakefield’s theory, one of which is being reported by Deer, have depended significantly or wholly upon a journalist’s own allegations.

He also posted up on the same site a bizarre and incoherent riposte to the critics who have been hammering away at him on the blogs:

If I am as central to the GMC’s case as the cranks and liars say, why would I publish a front page and two inside pages story which wasn’t true? Indeed, if it wasn’t substantially true it would be a very serious libel indeed, and bound to be found out. It would amount to professional suicide.

If what I published is misleading (and it isn’t) the GMC panel (two lay members and three doctors) would see that I had published a baseless story. They, after all, have the children’s medical records (at least for 11 of them). Given the number of times they have reviewed this material, the data probably stalks their dreams.

Why would I put my name to something that would defeat myself? Obviously I wouldn’t. Although there is no risk of prejudice to the hearing (GMC panels are deemed by the court of appeal to be beyond prejudice, providing they are properly advised), there could be no possible explanation as to why I would publish gross falsehoods that are open to such intense scrutiny by the panel of a statutory inquiry.

The Sunday Times might be well advised to take a very hard look at its ‘objective’ reporter and his involvement in his own story. And the GMC has some questions to answer too