Read An Elaborate Fraud Part 1: In Which a Murdoch Reporter Deceives the Mother of a Severely Autistic Child and An Elaborate Fraud, Part 2: In Which a Murdoch Newspaper’s Deceptive Tactics Infect the British Medical Journal.
By Dan Olmsted
Isabella Thomas, mother of two of the 12 children in the controversial Early Report that first linked bowel disease and developmental regression, has written to the British Medical Journal asking whether its claim that the report was “an elaborate fraud” was itself tainted by the use of confidential medical information about her sons.
“I am putting in a complaint about Brian Deer’s article in the BMJ. … Some of the article relates to my sons’ medical details,” Thomas wrote last week to the BMJ editors as well as the Press Complaints Commission that considers allegations of journalist misconduct. “Please can you investigate my complaint as a matter of urgency. I am asking what material you had from Brian Deer to [corroborate] his story. Did you have … medical records or confidential documents relating to my children?”
Thomas’s plea followed by one day the start of my series examining the BMJ’s January article by free-lance journalist Deer. Deer claimed Dr. Andrew Wakefield, lead researcher in the 1998 Early Report, had “fixed data” to create the appearance of a link between bowel disorder, developmental regression and the measles-mumps-rubella shot, or MMR.
That Early Report – which appeared in 1998 in the Lancet, Britain’s other leading medical journal – noted that in eight of the 12 children (including Thomas’s), parents linked the onset of symptoms to the MMR shot, and it called for more research to see if a link in fact existed. It said no link to the MMR was established by the simple case series report.
Despite that cautious approach, the report and its aftermath sparked a firestorm that, fueled by Deer, ultimately led to Wakefield losing his medical license and to the Lancet retracting the report. Yet thousands of parents continue to support Wakefield and describe the same sequence of shot and symptoms as parents in the original case series. Mainstream media, medical groups, public health officials and pharmaceutical companies say any link has been discredited.
All but one of the Lancet parents who have spoken out – including Thomas – have stood by Wakefield and the study results and called the efforts to discredit him unfounded.
The January BMJ article by Deer, titled “How the Case Against the MMR Vaccine was Fixed,” was one of many written by Deer over a period of seven years charging Wakefield with conflicts of interest, unethical practices and, finally, outright fraud. Most of that work was published in the Sunday Times of London. Even the BMJ’s fraud allegation was not new – it was originally published in the Sunday Times in 2009 in an article by Deer claiming Wakefield had “fixed data” to create the MMR link..
Whatever methods Deer used to gather that information for the Sunday Times, in other words, were the methods adopted by the BMJ when it published them as the basis for its claim of “an elaborate fraud” by Wakefield. In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, I described the mother of another child in the Early Report, who had been interviewed by a man claiming to be “Brian Lawrence” from the Sunday Times, who turned out to be Deer. Quotes from that six-hour “interrogation,” as she described it, ended up in the BMJ. She complained to the Sunday Times at the time, which did not apologize but also did not run any quotes from the interview.
Allegations that Deer gained access to confidential information about the children in the case series have been made for years but largely ignored by press and public officials focused on what they asserted was misconduct by Wakefield – and concerned to protect a vaccination program they said it threatened (the BMJ represents the British Medical Association and is sent to more than 100,000 doctors, many of whom have stakes in vaccine usage). However, the attention has shifted in recent days to the quality of the evidence against Wakefield and how it was obtained, as phone hacking, police bribery and other crimes have roiled the Murdoch newspaper empire – of which the Sunday Times is the crown jewel in Great Britain.
The confidentiality issue, however, had been raised even earlier and at a much higher level – in 2005, in the House of Lords, following Deer's first report on Wakefield in 2004 in the Sunday Times. Here are written answers (in italics) from the government to an inquiry from Countess Mar, a member of the House of Lords, on January 10, 2005:
Data Protection Act 1998
The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether under the Data Protection Act 1998 a hospital may release to a journalist confidential documents relating to patients, including clinical findings and descriptions of medical procedures on children who can be identified; and, if not, whether it is in the public interest for the Department of Health website "MMR the facts" to include a link to the website of the Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer. [HL364]"
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): "While the Data Protection Act 1998 does not prevent clinicians sharing information for necessary medical purposes, the confidential nature of health data prevents it being disclosed more widely unless: identifying information has been removed or anonymised; the individuals concerned have given their consent to disclosure; there is a statutory obligation to disclose or a court order requiring disclosure—it is in response to a court order; there is an overriding public interest (for example to protect public health).
The "MMR the facts" website has been put together by the Immunisation Information team at the Department of Health. The information team makes available a range of materials designed to provide both parents and health professionals with the latest information on immunisation. As is common practice, it provides links to other sources of information that will help inform the public interest and debate in the topic. As noted on the site, the department is not responsible for the content or reliability of linked websites, and linking should not be taken as endorsement of any kind."
Immediately after the BMJ article by Deer appeared this past January, Isabella Thomas wrote several times to BMJ Editor Fiona Godlee, to demand answers about its continuing use of information about her son.
“I am writing to you because of my concern regarding Brian Deer’s articles in the BMJ,” began one of the letters. “I did respond to the article asking how you came to the serious decision that it was fraud. To date you have not published my response yet again.
“I want to ask how could you compare the GP records and the hospital records of my children unless you have them in your procession? As it involves my children and you did not make contact with any of the Lancet families, I would like to know what evidence Brian Deer has shown you to make you reach this conclusion?”
Thomas also pointed out that Deer had quoted from an electronic Blackberry message sent to her by Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, at the start of a General Medical Council proceeding against Wakefield and two colleagues instigated by Deer. “My own view,” Deer quoted Horton as writing to Thomas, “is that the GMC is no place to continue this debate. But the process has started and it will be impossible to stop.”
How, she wanted to know, did Deer gain access to that?
Thomas told me that since this series of articles began she has spoken to a Member of Parliament who "is backing me on the issue of Brian Deer holding medical information on my boys who were part of the Lancet study.”
To all this, the response from the BMJ, the official house organ of Britain’s medical establishment: Silence. Even if it has assured itself that there are no ethical or legal breaches in the way the information it published was obtained, that may not be a tenable position in the long run, considering how closely its claim of fraud is linked to the reporting Deer did for Murdoch’s enterprise.
Separately, just as the Murdochs and Rebekah Brooks of News International – the News Corp. division that includes the Sunday Times -- were appearing before Parliament last week, another MP Bob Stewart of Beckenham, submitted a written request: “To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, if she will assess the adequacy of the police investigation into the activities commissioned by The Sunday Times of the freelance journalist Mr Brian Deer in relation to the acquisition of children's medical records and information from (a) the Royal Free Hospital and (b) other sources between 2003 and 2005."
James Murdoch, who oversees the British newspaper group, is now under fire after three former executives charged he lied to Parliament when he said he did not know about phone hacking at the Sunday Times’ sister paper, the now-shuttered News of the World, when he approved a large settlement to a soccer star.
Ignorance, it seems, is no longer a convincing excuse.
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.