Max Clifford - the man dubbed “the world’s most famous publicist” - says he was drawn into an involvement with Andrew Wakefield by claims that the drug industry was behind the discredited MMR doctor’s arraignment in front of the UK’s General Medical Council.
In a heated phone call yesterday aiming to head off a newslisted Sunday Times report on plans by his company, Max Clifford Associates, to represent Wakefield, Clifford said that it was on the basis of allegations of sinister industry activities that he became interested.
Clifford, 66, explained that he had been approached by Carol Stott, a Wakefield personal employee, and told that the GMC’s case against Wakefield and two other doctors, alleging serious professional misconduct, was being manipulated behind the scenes.
“I was told that there were vast sums of money from pharmaceutical companies involved in discrediting these people,” he told me.
Clifford’s Saturday afternoon call followed an exchange with his daughter, Louise Clifford, who the previous day had appeared to confirm that a campaign was being planned to try to rehabilitate Wakefield.
“They are looking to take us on for a few months to try to put the balance right, really, and to try to get some good publicity for Andrew, and what he believes in,” said Ms Clifford, 38.
Her admission came just three days after Wakefield was let go by Thoughtful House - a business he founded in Austin, Texas - and less than three weeks after the Lancet retracted his sham MMR research paper of February 1998, which ignited public fear that vaccines may be linked to autism.
Ms Clifford said that a key part of the strategy would be to recruit experts who endorsed Wakefield's views. "Max has said that for the British media, if we had a professor, scientist, researcher from the States, you know, it has a lot more impact... to the media it holds that much more authority."
But she recognised that the task would not be easy, coming after Wakefield had been ruled “dishonest”, “unethical” and “callous” by a statutory tribunal of the GMC, following 197 days of evidence, submissions and deliberation.
“Our campaign is going to be an uphill struggle to get some good publicity, and to get people to question: ‘is there another point of view here, is this the full story?’” she said.
Ms Clifford, however, is an experienced publicist. Among her previous challenges was a campaign to rehabilitate entrepreneur Gerald Ratner, whose national jewellery chain collapsed in 1991, after he described his own products as “total crap”.
But, despite her enthusiasm, in the phone call from her father any suggestion of a campaign was rejected. “We are not involved, and we will not get involved unless they are backed by top medical experts,” he said. “We aren’t being paid a penny at the moment.”
Max Clifford - whose clients have included illusionist David Copperfield, Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed and record producer Simon Cowell, and who refused to represent Michael Jackson after the late singer was found innocent of child abuse - said his word on the matter was definitive.
“It’s my company, and my daughter works for me,” he said.
Stott, a freelance researcher, paid in recent years through several Wakefield enterprises, has made such allegations of industry involvement on a number of occasions, but has never produced any evidence.
In 2004, she was suspended from a junior post at Cambridge university and later censured by the British Psychological Society, after a hate mail campaign, during which she claimed that the university’s research into autism was being influenced by a drug firm.
Wakefield has made similar unsubstantiated allegations, and it’s understood that Stott was intended to be a conduit through which American anti-vaccine campaigners would channel money to fund a public relations initiative for Wakefield, masterminded by Max Clifford Associates.
Two names were given to us, by a reliable contact, as likely sources of money. These were J B Handley of Generation Rescue, a group fronted by actress Jenny McCarthy, and Mark Blaxill, of the group Safeminds, which has claimed that autism is nothing but mercury poisoning.
These names were put to Ms Clifford, who said that she didn’t recognise Handley’s, but she appeared to take the bait over Blaxill. “Right, Mark. Okay. Mark is...” But then she paused to ask: “Brian, what’s your background?”
Asked whether it wouldn’t be irresponsible to potentially take money to possibly promote what could develop into a renewed public health alarm that risked children’s lives, she said she refuted that suggestion.
“What Carol’s concerned about, and obviously Andrew, is presenting the facts as they see them,” she insisted. “And a lot of American professors are behind him.”
She said: “We are not trying to create any sort of alarm. We are trying to represent a man who has been represented in a very narrow way.”
Stott first approached Max Clifford in 2008, when she persuaded him to attend a session of the mammoth GMC hearing in London, during which he sat in the public area as Wakefield was cross-examined. “I was interested in the subject,” he explained yesterday.
But he suggested that contact had resumed more recently, apparently in the aftermath of GMC findings of fact handed down on 28 January. These found Wakefield guilty of some three dozen charges in connection with his MMR research, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 involving the abuse of autistic children.
Five days later, the Lancet retracted Wakefield’s research. "It was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false," Dr Richard Horton, the journal’s editor, told The Guardian. "I feel I was deceived."
The following day, Dr Joan Marie Cranmer, editor of the specialist journal Neurotoxicology, told her New York publisher that she would withdraw a new Wakefield paper, already released online, which also claimed to incriminate vaccines.
It’s understood that Cranmer "took another look at the paper" in the light of a GMC finding of research dishonesty, but a spokesman for the publisher, Elsevier, declined to comment. “It would be inappropriate to go into a lot of detail,” he said.
The Neurotoxicology decision is believed to have been the last straw at Thoughtful House, a centre founded in 2005 by the rich parents of developmentally-challenged children. The clinic was set up to enable Wakefield to continue activities which in October 2001 saw him fired from a London research position, and which eventually led to the GMC charges.
Thoughtful House has repeatedly aroused suspicions among doctors of continuing Wakefield’s practice of causing unnecessary ileocolonoscopies to be performed on autistic children in bids to get tissues from their small intestines for research.
“We fully support his decision to leave,” said a terse, 142-word statement from the centre, issued on the evening of 17 February, and referring to him only as “Dr Wakefield”. At 10am the following morning, his name was erased from the front of the Thoughtful House website, and a previous statement, criticising the GMC, was taken down.
In further brief comment on the departure, Jane Johnson, a Thoughtful House board member and also executive director of the US Defeat Autism Now organisation of alternative practitioners, said that those who knew Wakefield "will not find it implausible" that he quit for the good of the centre.
Observers say that the doctor may now be the victim of a domino effect, which threatens to see him lose his fellowship of the UK's Royal College of Pathologists, which he obtained in 2001 on the basis of a submission of his publications, and even potentially spark the collapse of a new celebrity-led American anti-vaccine movement.
In recent weeks, dozens of American newspapers, including The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times have published editorials condemning his conduct.
“Hippocrates would puke,” the New York Daily News headlined its opinion of Wakefield two weeks ago. “Doctor hoaxed parents into denying kids vaccine.”
The turnaround in his fortunes marks the climax of a Sunday Times investigation, which, in a series of revelations since February 2004, triggered the GMC inquiry, the Lancet’s belated retraction, and what appears to be Wakefield’s professional ruin.
His American publicist said last week that an appeal over the GMC’s decisions will be lodged in the High Court in London, but Wakefield himself has said nothing since issuing a statement last month.
“The allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust,” he declared in a dramatic scene outside the GMC's London offices. “I repeat, unfounded and unjust.”
In light of the still-growing scandal around the beleaguered doctor, Max Clifford was understandably concerned about the potential impact of any association. After our Saturday afternoon conversation, in which he four times dictated that he was “not involved” with Wakefield, he called a senior Sunday Times executive.
Afterwards, I was told: “I think there is absolutely no chance that he will ever work with Wakefield, and he practically said as much.”
Postscript: With regard to the Neurotoxicology withdrawal, the journal's editor issued the following statement: “Scientific integrity and good science are fundamental principles for publication of research articles in Neurotoxicology. Although rare, the journal withdraws papers whenever these essential principles are cast into doubt. The January 28, 2010 UK General Medical Council ruling of research dishonesty by Dr Andrew Wakefield cast into doubt the scientific integrity of a new related paper co-authored by Wakefield. However, it would be inappropriate for either me or the other editors to discuss the specific factors publicly. Professor Joan M Cranmer, Editor, Neurotoxicology."