UK's Leveson Inquiry plays cat and mouse with public interest over the Murdoch press investigation into MMR
By John Stone
When it comes to the MMR affair the UK’s inquiry into the conduct of the press and Rupert Murdoch’s News International media empire seems to have been biased, have hidden historical connections and to be anything but transparent. Four family members of vaccine damaged children who submitted evidence to the Inquiry have found themselves arbitrarily rebuffed at News International’s behest. Their concerns, based on publically available information, were:
- That Deer and the Sunday Times did not make clear in the newspaper that he had personally initiated the prosecution against Wakefield and colleagues with a series of complaints whilst continuing to report the GMC hearing
- That the Sunday Times/Times launched a new raft of articles against Wakefield following the announcement of the appointment of News International boss, James Murdoch, to the board of MMR manufacturers and defendants GlaxoSmithKline in February 2009
Faced with these important issues the Leveson Inquiry has simply chosen to draw a veil over the matter, while happily taking evidence that the press abused its role by reporting concerns about MMR safety in the first place. It is a remarkable and unhappy coincidence, therefore, that Lord Leveson and lead attorney for the Inquiry, Robert Jay QC , were both involved in blocking litigant families’ interests in the MMR proceedings.
Below is the joint statement of the four co-authors of the submission (which cannot be reproduced for reasons of confidentiality):
A key question of the UK Leveson Inquiry into press ethics is how independent will the inquiry be in the face of powerful press corporations such as News International and their media outlets. Set up last summer after revelations of a decade of phone hacking by the press, the Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press, chaired by Lord Justice Leveson, has come to be seen as a potential solution to unbridled press powers to intrude into private life. Whether it succeeds in establishing a new system of press regulation and legal rights against intrusion must await the publication of Leveson's report later this year. But our experience as four parents of autistic children who submitted a detailed account of the Sunday Times’ 7-year investigation into the 1998 Lancet paper by Dr Andrew Wakefield et al, demonstrates NI’s continuing power to influence the evidence submitted to the Inquiry and its agenda.
The Sunday Times investigation by journalist Brian Deer began in 2004 with the highly questionable act of obtaining without the consent of parents or the Royal Free Hospital the confidential medical records of eleven sick children whose anonymised clinical conditions the Lancet paper had studied. An act which was repeated in 2006 by another News International paper, the Sun, who obtained and published confidential medical records of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown's son, Fraser. The Sunday Times investigation raised further questions which we put to the Inquiry. Given these events, The Inquiry’s initial response to our submission in November 2011 was to arrange for one of us to sign it as a statement of truth and then to call him to appear before the inquiry to give oral evidence on 6 December. But we, like other parents who have witnessed the press’ ongoing disregard for our cause, didn’t hold our breath. One week before his appearance, the parent was told the Inquiry no longer required his attendance.
On asking why, he was told by the Inquiry solicitors that the Sunday Times had exercised their right as 'core participants' to object to the witness statement. In fact they had successfully convinced the Inquiry that their version of events was different from the parents' submission and that Leveson would need to establish which version was accurate. However, assessing the veracity of competing statements was not within Leveson’s terms of reference and so the Inquiry rejected the statement and refused to publish it as part of its large body of evidence. The Inquiry moved in the space of a week or so from calling a witness to give oral evidence based on his statement of truth to rejecting his evidence in total.
The role of core participant was introduced under the 2006 Inquiry Rules and entitles a core participant to be designated a "person [who] played, or may have played, a direct and significant role in relation to the matters to which the inquiry relates", or has a direct interest in these matters, or is likely to be subject to significant or explicit criticism during the course of the inquiry. "In line with natural justice" (in the Inquiry solicitor's words when explaining the rejection of our submission), core participants have advanced sight of witness statements that refer to them. Nowhere does legislation mention the right of core participants to challenge evidence they are entitled to see. It appears that Justice Leveson has introduced this practice as a rule to be followed in his own Inquiry following arguments from News International’s lawyers. Having gained this new right, News International is now exercising it.
The Inquiry solicitors asked News International lawyers if they were willing to share their submission with the parent; but they refused. In sum, News International lawyers, supported by the legal nonsense of natural justice, have sight of the parents' evidence and then get it thrown out. The parents on the other hand are not allowed to see New International's argument for rejecting their evidence.
This travesty of legal rights is further compounded by Leveson's rhetoric about transparency. In his opening remarks on 28 July 2011, he referred to "the spirit of complete transparency which I intend should be one of the principal objectives of all of our work".
What is also surprising is that many of the 500 witnesses so far submitting statements or appearing before the Inquiry have given evidence based on accounts that News International newspapers and other press outlets might object to. Yet these witnesses were given the opportunity to submit written evidence and be examined by Inquiry lawyers on their evidence. This raises a key question: how often have core participants successfully argued that the evidence of written submissions should not be accepted by the Inquiry? How many other potential witnesses have been excluded because NI or other core participants objected? Whilst the public continue to be deeply alarmed by the Inquiry's mounting revelations, they have no idea what other evidence of press misconduct is being kept from public view by legal manoeuvring behind the hearing.
Whilst Leveson has deemed the parents' evidence inadmissible, well-known witnesses have been allowed to publically criticise press reporting in the early 2000s of parents' and others' legitimate worries about MMR safety. Alistair Campbell, former Prime Minister Tony Blair's press secretary, said the media were "grossly irresponsible" in reporting the 1998 Lancet paper. Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, having published several investigative reports questioning the safety of MMR, recanted and "ran a mea culpa" retracting their earlier investigation of its alleged dangers http://www.ageofautism.com/2012/01/in-memoriam-paul-foot-private-eye-in-an-ethical-tangle-over-mmr.html . Ms Fiona Fox, for the Science Media Centre, referred to the MMR as "the best known example of how poor media reporting can cause harm" http://www.ageofautism.com/2012/02/hacked-off-boss-martin-moore-sat-on-uk-government-panel-with-editor-who-hired-brian-deer-.html , http://www.ageofautism.com/2009/04/autism-the-64-billion-dollar-a-year-question-for-simon-baroncohen-ben-goldacre-fiona-fox-and-autism-.html . No mention in their accounts of the genuine worries parents have about MMR safety, the experiences of parents of autistic children who witnessed their child's regression closely following the jab, and of medical calls for a more cautious approach to vaccinations.
The involvement of individuals who have misrepresented the children's case in the media goes beyond these witnesses to Dr Evan Harris, the adviser to ‘Hacked Off’, the anti-Murdoch organisation formed in the wake of the media hacking scandal. Hacked Off has refused to explain the presence of former MP Evan Harris as its advisor . Dr Harris – who was also a member of the British Medical Association ethics committee at the time – accompanied Brian Deer to the Lancet offices on 18 February 2004 to ambush Wakefield and colleagues with Deer's findings from the confidential medical records of children obtained without consent. Harris wrote an editorial in the Sunday Times, accompanying Deer’s first allegations against Wakefield on 22 February 2004, and led a debate against Wakefield under cloak of privilege in the House of Commons on 15 March 2004.
When it comes to both the chairman and lead attorney for the Inquiry, Lord Leveson and Queen’s Counsel Robert Jay, it is troubling in this context that they have both played a role in denying the claims to justice of the MMR litigants. In October 2005, Leveson refused the parents' application for a judicial review of the decision of the Legal Services Commission to withdraw legal aid from their children's class action against MMR manufacturers ,while the Commission was represented at the original hearing before Sir Nigel Davis by Jay (‘R (Williams) v Legal Services Commission [article 6 and reasons challenge to LSC's decision to withdraw public funding for the MMR…]). The judgments of both Davis and Leveson remains embargoed to this day, leaving the roles of Davis's and Leveson's thinking and Jay's evidence obscure in this matter.
Martin Hewitt, John Stone, David Thrower & Bill Welsh (Links in the text have been added by AoA)
Sir Crispin Davis and James Murdoch No Longer on GSK Board http://www.ageofautism.com/2012/01/sir-crispin-davis-and-james-murdoch-no-longer-on-gsk-board.html
Melanie Phillips, ‘A Deer in the Headlights’ Spectator http://www.whale.to/vaccine/a_deer.html
In Memoriam Paul Foot: Private Eye in an Ethical Tangle Over MMR http://www.ageofautism.com/2012/01/in-memoriam-paul-foot-private-eye-in-an-ethical-tangle-over-mmr.html
Evan Harris Distances Himself From Brian Deer But His Position Remains Untenable http://www.ageofautism.com/2012/01/evan-http://www.ageofautism.com/2009/04/autism-the-64-billion-dollar-a-year-question-for-simon-baroncohen-ben-goldacre-fiona-fox-and-autism-.htmlharris-distances-himself-from-brian-deer-position-remains-untenable.html
Hacked Off Boss, Martin Moore, Sat on UK Government Panel with Editor who Hired Brian Deer http://www.ageofautism.com/2012/02/hacked-off-boss-martin-moore-sat-on-uk-government-panel-with-editor-who-hired-brian-deer-.html
Open Letter to Sunday Times Editor John Witherow: ‘We wouldn’t do fishing http://www.ageofautism.com/2012/02/open-letter-to-sunday-times-editor-john-witherow-we-wouldnt-do-fishing.html
Brian Deer Hired to "Find Something Big" on MMR http://www.ageofautism.com/2010/03/brian-deer-hired-to-find-something-big-on-mmr.html
Brian Deer Lords it at a Pharmaceutical Conference in France http://www.ageofautism.com/2011/11/brian-deer-lords-it-at-a-pharmaceutical-conference-in-france.html
Autism: the 64 billion dollar a year question for Simon Baron-Cohen, Ben Goldacre, Fiona Fox and Autism Speaks UK http://www.ageofautism.com/2009/04/autism-the-64-billion-dollar-a-year-question-for-simon-baroncohen-ben-goldacre-fiona-fox-and-autism-.html
An Elaborate Fraud, Part 1: In Which a Murdoch Reporter Deceives the Mother of a Severely Autistic Child http://www.ageofautism.com/2011/07/an-elaborate-fraud-part-1-in-which-a-murdoch-reporter-deceives-the-mother-of-a-severely-autistic-chi.html
An Elaborate Fraud, Part 2: In Which a Murdoch Newspaper’s Deceptive Tactics Infect the British Medical Journal http://www.ageofautism.com/2011/07/an-elaborate-fraud-part-2-in-which-a-murdoch-newspapers-deceptive-tactics-infect-the-british-medical.html
Newsletter: MMR and MLI – MMR Sunday Times Investigation 22 February 2004 http://www.whale.to/v/mli.html