By Dan Olmsted
The journalist who claims Dr. Andrew Wakefield “fixed data” to link autism and the MMR shot says his own work contains “no ethical irregularities” – and he is accusing parents of autistic children of conspiring with Wakefield.
Brian Deer, who wrote the British Medical Journal article in January alleging that Wakefield's report was a hoax, was responding to criticism of his own methods by parents of three of the 12 children in the Wakefield report. Deer says those parents actually were “in it” with Wakefield and continue “to conspire with” him to create a false version of events.
One parent, Rosemary Kessick, said Deer had used a false name when interviewing her on the subject and was accusatory and biased; a second parent, Isabella Thomas, questioned how Deer obtained medical information about her two sons as well as other confidential data.
In the 1998 Early Report by Wakefield and 12 co-authors at London’s Royal Free Hospital, published in the Lancet, both parents had linked the onset of autistic regression and bowel disease to the mumps-measles-rubella shot. Wakefield and colleagues reported the parental associations in eight of the 12 children, but 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 examines the basis for the claim that Wakefield, and Wakefield alone, perpetrated “an elaborate fraud,” a claim the BMJ and subsequently mainstream media have adopted as fact. Wakefield’s research is now widely described as discredited and any link between vaccines and autism as debunked.
Regarding Kessick’s comments to me, Deer wrote on July 26: “Not only do I have no shred of doubt about interviewing Rosemary Kessick while using a pseudonymn [sic], I’m immensely proud of the encounter. … Thanks Ms Kessick.”
Deer, who was working for The Sunday Times of London at the time of the interview in 2003, said he had “discussed the intended use of a pseudonym in advance with editorial and legal staff, and the subterfuge was wholly justified by the public interest in the safety of children by means of vaccination, which Ms Kessick sought to challenge.”
In fact, the newspaper said in a note accompanying the subsequent article, three months later, that “As one of Britain’s top investigative journalists, he [Deer] has also had to work under assumed names because pharmaceutical companies have tried to block his inquiries” – not that Deer had used such tactics with the parent of a disabled child. Nor did that article use any quotes from her, although the British Medical Journal did so seven years later without explaining when or under what circumstances they had been obtained.
Simply saying, as Deer did, that The Sunday Times approved of his deceit may not carry the Good Housekeeping-like stamp of approval it once did. The newspaper is part of News International owned by Rupert Murdoch, which is the subject of several official investigations into reporting tactics during that period, including phone and computer hacking and “blagging,” the use of false identities to gain access to confidential information.
"Not only are there no ethical irregularities in my work, but my stories on MMR are now widely-regarded as the textbook public interest investigation in the field of medicine," Deer said in his July post in response to my articles. "Hence, my second British Press Award, which, as every British journalist will know, are immensely difficult to win."
Deer went on to accuse Kessick of serious impropriety. “The pair of them were in it together,” he wrote of Kessick and Wakefield. Deer offered no evidence to support the allegation.
Deer has a long history of lambasting Wakefield, calling him a “charlatan” and “slippery as condom lube.” More recently, perhaps fortified by the journalism award in Britain, he has gone after journalists (he called me a “clown” in his recent post, a mild slight in the Deer lexicon), and parents who have challenged his critique of the Lancet study.
He described the letter Kessick wrote to the editor of the London Times about him as “a torrent of false abuse.” I quoted most of the letter in this series, but Deer said I “lied” when I wrote that I left out only a few irrelevant details. Deer said the omissions “would tend to undermine Ms. Kessick’s credibility,” although my recollection is they mostly had to do with his strangely frequent use of the bathroom.
In addition to his attack on Kessick, he called Isabella Thomas “a spiteful, vexatious lady, who apparently continues to conspire on behalf of Dr Andrew Wakefield in false allegations that evidence exists to suggest that the MMR vaccine causes autism.”
That comment by Deer was contained in an October 23, 2006, letter from Deer to Norman Baker, Thomas’s member of Parliament who had enquired on her behalf about Deer’s reporting.
“I don’t believe that Ms. Thomas has any genuine concern about confidentiality,” Deer added. “In my view, she wants to cause me harm, and to obstruct further inquiry into what happened at the Royal Free Hospital [where the study was conducted] in the late 1990s.”
A number of parents who support Wakefield’s research findings told me they are afraid to speak out for fear of being attacked by Deer as dishonest, or having their words twisted to conform to his viewpoint. In the past Deer has said that he would be the judge of whether a family was entitled to medical confidentiality based on his own assessment of their statements and actions.
He also wrote in his July post that I am “presently grappling with how to leave out a direct allegation of fraud against Wakefield made in another letter by a Lancet 12 parent.”
That is what a literature major might call an idiosyncratic reading of the text. It will be discussed in due course – although Deer, who received the letter in March as a result of my inquiries, is free to bring it up at his convenience, which he has now done twice without describing the content. The BMJ also has a copy, supplied by me in June, and so far has failed to acknowledge its receipt or publish the major correction plainly envisioned by its own editorial policy.
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.