News Roundup [abridged Versions Appear In The Paper Journal]

High Court judge criticises Andrew Wakefield for trying to silence his critics

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.331.7525.1104-a (Published 10 November 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1104
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    Andrew Wakefield, the doctor at the centre of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine controversy, was criticised by a high court judge last week for trying to silence critics by warning them that he was suing for libel while at the same time failing to progress the case.

    Mr Justice Eady said that he was quite satisfied that Dr Wakefield, who now works in Austin, Texas, “wished to extract whatever advantage he could from the existence of the proceedings while not wishing to progress them or to give the defendants an opportunity of meeting the claims.”

    The judge refused Dr Wakefield's application to stay—put on hold—the libel claim against Channel 4; 20-20 Productions; and a journalist, Brian Deer, over the November 2004 Dispatches programme “MMR: What They Didn't Tell You.”

    Dr Wakefield's lawyers had wanted this to be done, pending the final outcome of the case brought against him by the General Medical Council, due to be heard next summer.

    Dr Wakefield led a study published in 1998 in the Lanceton associations between measles virus, autism, and bowel disease. At a press conference to publicise the research, he argued for single vaccines rather than the combined MMR vaccination. The ensuing controversy led to a dramatic drop in coverage.

    The study focused on tests carried out on 12 children with gastrointestinal problems referred to the Royal Free Hospital, where Dr Wakefield worked at the time. He also received legal aid to carry out another study to find out if parents who claimed their children were damaged by the MMR vaccine had a case. Some children were in both studies. The Lancet later said that this was a conflict of interest, which would have ensured rejection of the paper, had the journal known about it at the time.

    Dr Wakefield's solicitors had written to Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris in February and the Cambridge Evening News in June this year, warning them against repeating defamatory statements made in the Dispatches programme.

    But the judge said that the letters were misleading because they referred to Dr Wakefield's separate libel action against the Sunday Times over articles by Mr Deer as if it were current, when it had already been put on hold by agreement.

    The solicitors also wrote, unsuccessfully, to the Department of Health, asking it to remove links from its website to information on the Dispatches programme on the Channel 4 website and to Mr Deer's website.

    Mr Justice Eady said, “It thus appears that the claimant wishes to use the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes, and to deter other critics, while at the same time isolating himself from the “downside” of such litigation, in having to answer a substantial defence of justification.”

    Dr Harris said, “It is ironic that Dr Wakefield should try to use such a ploy when he and his supporters allege that he has been silenced by the medical establishment.”

    Dr Wakefield's solicitor, Simon Dinnick, said that the application was “to avoid unnecessary duplication of time and effort.” The legal proceedings would be progressed with all due expedition, he said.