Big story of Crohn's disease: how attack on broadcasters revealed baseless claims

This page is material generated during a libel lawsuit brought, and withdrawn, by Dr Andrew Wakefield, against Channel 4 Television Corporation, Twenty Twenty Productions Ltd and Brian Deer, arising from Deer's 2004 programme MMR: What they didn't tell you

Below is a commentary drafted by Brian Deer in 2006 for Channel 4's lawyers, concerning a complaint lodged in 1996 on behalf of Andrew Wakefield, "the claimant", against an earlier programme by Twenty Twenty, "the second defendant", which investigated the former gut surgeon's [abandoned] claim that vaccines against measles caused the inflammatory bowel disorder Crohn's disease. The material in maroon is from Wakefield's reply to a defence of justification filed in the case Andrew Wakefield v Channel 4 & Ors

"3.2. Further, the Second Defendant made a television programme in 1996 titled “The Big Story” which was broadcast by Carlton Television. The Claimant agreed to participate in this programme, although ultimately he was extremely disappointed when it misrepresented him and his work on broadcast. The Claimant subsequently came to understand that the programme had been edited deliberately so as to attack him. This led to a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Commission about unjust and unfair treatment of the Claimant and another participant in the programme, Professor Anders Ekbom. The BSC upheld the complaint in part, in particular in relation to the editing of answers given by Professor Ekbom in interview which had the effect of making them appear detrimental to the Claimant and his work. As well as having its production company (i.e. the current Second Defendant) in common with “The Big Story”, the Dispatches programme now under complaint shared the same executive producer, Ms Claudia Milne."

A programme maker’s past experience in any field of inquiry is not - as the claimant implies at 3.2 - a disqualification to further work in that field. On the contrary: the public interest would be poorly served if programme makers and journalists restricted themselves to subjects of which they had no experience.

The second defendant, Twenty Twenty Productions, produced a 30-minute ITV-1 “Big Story” series programme, titled “A Difficult Decision”, broadcast on October 3 1996. Unknown to the producers, this was only a month after William Kessick’s in-patient admission to the Royal Free, as the first in the claimant’s cohort of children, recruited through Ms Fletcher, Mr Barr and Ms Kessick, and published in The Lancet in February 1998.

The programme was introduced by its presenter in the following terms:

“Tonight we investigate claims that a new campaign to vaccinate more than a million children against measles could lead many to develop an incurable disease.”

The programme ventilated the claimant’s claim that measles vaccine was the cause of Crohn’s disease. The producers’ decision to produce a programme on this topic followed extensive newspaper coverage of this alarming claim, and the broadcast was timed to coincide with a Department of Health campaign to revaccinate children with a second dose of MMR. The claimant was featured in the programme, stating, among other things (with reference to the government’s November 1994 MR revaccination campaign):

“I’m very concerned. We have seen a very large number of cases of Crohn’s disease in children presenting since the ’94 campaign, and my anxiety is if we start re-exposing 4-year-olds to measles vaccine without any follow-up, without any indication of how safe that’s going to be, then we as gastroenterologists are going to see a greater increase in the number of these children presenting with this extremely unpleasant disease.”

“The longest trial of measles vaccine safety set up prospectively in this country or the States, for example, is three weeks. And three weeks is wholly inadequate. Wholly inadequate for a live, potentially hazardous biological agent about which nothing is known.”

The programme also featured Ms Fletcher of Jabs, who was then launching a campaign against the government’s 1996 vaccination plans, and who was shown stuffing envelopes. She stated that she blamed MMR for the problems of her neurologically disordered son Robert (who is not autistic). Ms Fletcher commented:

“Dr Wakefield produced a major report linking the measles vaccine categorically with inflammatory bowel disease. The Department of Health saw fit to poo-poo that, instead of investigating it.”

Other featured parents blaming measles vaccines included Ms Kessick, Ms Susan Hamlyn, and Ms Ruth Tilley.

The programme’s producers were impressed by the parents’ anecdotal evidence, and had originally anticipated that “A Difficult Decision” would sound a clear warning note about the unknown risks of measles vaccination, which the claimant, Ms Fletcher and the others were criticising. However, in the course of routine research, the second defendant’s production staff were unable to find any specialist in the UK who would endorse the claimant’s allegation that measles vaccine was the cause of Crohn’s disease. On the contrary, the response encountered among specialists was (entirely unexpectedly, given the newspaper coverage) critical of the claimant’s opinions. In this light, the programme makers were under a clear obligation to adopt a balanced “for-and-against” tone, in which the claimant’s frightening allegations were both advanced and questioned.

Although the claimant was at the time only a senior lecturer at a north London medical school, he evidently believed himself to be of such stature and accomplishment that the second defendant should have accorded him an uncritical thirty-minute infomercial for his highly contentious and poorly substantiated claim that measles vaccine caused Crohn’s disease (and on which, unknown to the programme-makers, he had filed patent applications, including for his own vaccine). After the broadcast, he instructed Mr Robert Sawyer, a property developer who was at the time his publicist, and who now operates the registered charity Visceral on the claimant’s behalf, to make a complaint to the Broadcasting Standards Commission (whose responsibilities are now absorbed into Ofcom).

After a hearing, the BSC said in an adjudication dated September 17 1997:

“The Commission considers this edition of The Big Story to have been a responsible investigation into a matter of considerable public interest at a time when the Government’s programme of mass vaccinations against measles was being extensively publicised by its supporters and criticised by its opponents.”

With regard to a complaint made by Mr Sawyer on behalf of the Swedish doctor, Prof Ekbom (who, the BSC recorded, did not, in fact, endorse the claimant’s theory), the BCC acknowledged in its adjudication “the difficulties the programme-makers faced in editing an interview with a Swedish expert who was discussing technical and often complex points in a language foreign to him”. The producers confirmed that part of a sentence which was incomprehensible had been edited out, and that, in retrospect, it would have been better to interview him in Swedish, with his contribution subtitled. However, the adjudication said that the programme-makers failed to make clear that the doctor “did hold the view that on balance there was likely to be a connection between the measles virus and Crohn’s disease, and that measles was a ‘suspect agent’ in the development of Crohn’s.” This criticism in the adjudication related to the doctor’s views about measles virus, not vaccine, and was therefore tangential to the programme’s main issue. But the BSC said with regard to this aspect of the representation of Prof Ekbom (who the second defendant did not think played much part in making the complaint): “In this one respect the Commission finds unfairness”.

With regard to the claimant, the BSC considered his allegations in detail, and rejected them. The adjudication stated:

“Therefore the Commission does not find any significant unfairness to Dr Wakefield.”

Thus, not only was the second defendant’s reportage of the claimant fair, it was found to be fair by the BSC, which was a tribunal worthy of a court’s respect.

Given the seriousness with which the claimant took his claim that measles vaccine caused Crohn’s disease, the defendants in this litigation have been surprised to see that he subsequently abandoned this allegation, notwithstanding it being his central charge in “A Difficult Decision”. At paragraph 2.56 of his reply, for instance, he states:

"... monovalent measles vaccine is at least as effective as the measles component of MMR in vaccinating against measles, and comes with the advantage over MMR of well established safety."

Similarly, the defendants were surprised upon reading the transcript of the Medical Research Council meeting of March 1998 - held not 18 months after “A Difficult Decision” was broadcast, and only six months after the BSC adjudication - at which, the transcript shows, both the claimant and Dr Montgomery (who co-authored the falsified “Through a Glass Darkly” review) admitted that they had abandoned their measles-vaccine-causes-Crohn’s theory in the light of evidence to the contrary. This contrary evidence included that from the BCS70 survey [considered in detail in the commentary under 2.36.3 of the reply], which found no association between measles vaccination and Crohn’s disease.

At page 59 of the transcript, Dr Montgomery is reported saying:

“Our work and other people’s work does not support that monovalent measles vaccination at a typical age is a risk.”

At page 63:

DR MONTGOMERY: [Regarding his research with the claimant] It does not suggest that monovalent vaccination is a risk, from the evidence we have so far.

PROFESSOR TOMKINS: So you withdraw that hypothesis?

DR MONTGOMERY: As I say, the evidence that is there does not support that as far as I can see.

At page 64, the claimant himself chimes in, with regard to Crohn’s disease:

“If we were born all-knowing we would not be sitting round this table at the moment. Clearly hypotheses evolve... When we looked at the second cohort, the BCS70, the monovalent vaccine appears to be, if anything, slightly protective.”

Evidently, despite giving the claimant a substantial, fair, opportunity to ventilate his speculations, the second defendant was right to avoid presenting the public with a wholly credulous account in “A Difficult Decision”. Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, the second defendant now recognises that, during the production of the 1996 programme, it had not been told the whole story. The producers had no idea, for instance, that nine months before the broadcast, the claimant had taken lucrative employment with a solicitor to prove that vaccines featured in the programme were dangerous, or that only four months before the broadcast the claimant and Mr Barr had submitted a “proposed protocol and costing proposals” to the Legal Aid Board, and had been awarded a 55,000 contract to attempt to find fault with MR and MMR. Although the second defendant’s production team came to realize that the claimant’s views were controversial, it had been led to believe that he was an objective, independent scientist, and, in good faith, they presented him as such to viewers.

Additionally, the second defendant and its employees did not realize that the parents (Ms Fletcher, Ms Kessick, Ms Hamlyn, and Ms Tilley) featured in the programme were all clients of Mr Barr, hoping to gain financially from a lawsuit against manufacturers of the vaccines they had been given a platform to criticise. The second defendant is adamant that, had it known, it would have incorporated this important information, since it is wrong for a television programme to be exploited to create unwarranted public anxiety, or to fish for solicitors’ clients, without at least the true position being made clear. The potential to mislead, however, was mitigated by the balanced tone adopted in the broadcast.

Finally, the second defendant also did not know that the claimant’s statement in the programme that the longest trial of measles vaccine safety was three weeks was, in fact, false. Had it known this, it would not have produced that statement for broadcast, or the claimant’s untrue and irresponsible characterisation of measles vaccine as a “potentially hazardous biological agent about which nothing is known.” The claimant, however, knew, or should have known, that what he told a substantial ITV-1 audience was in these respects false.

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