By John Stone
The British mainstream media are once again hopping up and down about Andrew Wakefield (all of us here wish him well) with a particularly egregious and unnecessary attack in the hollowed out Guardian newspaper by their long time health correspondent, Sarah Boseley. Age of Autism is today reviving UK editor John Stone's article from the time of the Walker-Smith appeal in February 2012 at which, of course, the senior clinician and author in the Wakefield 1998 paper was completely exonerated. The core charges against all three doctors at the GMC had been busted and no one reported. But two years before Boseley had hinted that all was not well with the GMC findings, while her Guardian colleague Dr Ben Goldacre had wobbled for months with uncertainty and embarrassment, and retired conveniently from his column before the hearing. Now, mysteriously, following the publication of pictures of Wakefield in company of Elle Macpherson in the Daily Mail a new frenzy has engulfed the British media, and fascinatingly the message is that somehow the establishment is under attack! To which we can only say what gives them the right to go on covering up year after year. Used health journalists for sale. Who wants them anymore?
Sarah Boseley (centre in the photo) is the senior Guardian newspaper journalist who wrote on the occasion of the UK General Medical Council’s findings against Dr Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues Prof John Walker-Smith and Prof Simon Murch in January 2010:
"Opinion is divided in the medical establishment on the wisdom of pursuing Wakefield – and particularly his colleagues who played a lesser role in the drama – at the GMC. Some say there was a clear case to answer and that the GMC had no other option but others believe that no good can come of it."
What Boseley omitted to do as a decent journalist and a competent reporter was to tell her readership what the medical establishment was worried about. And what they were worried about may be by now coming back round to haunt both the medical establishment itself and the media, although no doubt damage limitation measures are already being put in a state of readiness. The spectre came in the form of a UK Press Association report of Prof Walker-Smith’s High Court appeal misleadingly entitled ‘MMR row doctor decision was “fair”’ . However, underneath the headline the story begins to hint at the real matter:
“The decision to strike off an eminent doctor over the MMR jab controversy has been defended at the High Court as "just and fair - not wrong".
“The General Medical Council (GMC) admitted to a judge that "inadequate reasons" may have been given by a disciplinary panel that found Professor John Walker-Smith guilty of serious professional misconduct. Those reasons related to conflicts over expert evidence.
“But Joanna Glynn QC, appearing for the GMC, said: "In spite of inadequate reasons it is quite clear on overwhelming evidence that the charges are made out."
“Professor Walker-Smith is asking Mr Justice Mitting at London's High Court to rule that he was denied a fair hearing. On the fourth day of his challenge, the judge said that the case had been "complex and difficult from the start - it greatly troubles me".”
At stake in the hearing are essentially two issues: whether Prof Walker-Smith acted beyond his brief as a clinician in the care of the 12 children in the much disputed Lancet paper, and whether the paper had anything to do – as alleged – with the protocol (identified with Royal Free Hospital ethical approval 172-96) for a Legal Aid Board funded paper, or was just as the paper itself stated an “early report” on 12 children seen and investigated on the basis of clinical need. This problem has been perpetually hinted at but never clearly explained in the British media – we will call it for convenience “the Boseley problem” though it is very much the problem of other journalists too.