Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters MMR scare

The BMJ’s measly editorial policies

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 08 February 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d809
  1. Neil MacFarlane, independent consultant in adult developmental psychiatry1
  1. 1London W1G 8GB, UK
  1. neilmacf{at}

The BMJ is right to pursue the autism/MMR/Wakefield issue,1 and to highlight the need for wider vaccination against measles. But problems remain. How is “good” investigative journalism to be reliably distinguished from the “bad” of certain newspapers and magazines? By detail alone? I am not convinced that if the Mail’s Melanie Phillips, say, had spent the same amount of time on the story, she would necessarily have ended up believing Andrew Wakefield to have been fraudulent, or even deliberately dishonest.

Brian Deer himself seems to recognise the limits of his three BMJ pieces. In a Press Gazette interview last year he indicated that there is no real distinction between scientific journals and newspapers.2 Why, then, bother having his first piece “peer reviewed” by the usual anonymous process? Perhaps declining such a doubtful endorsement would have been more consistent.

The Deer/BMJ’s overall account ignores the context in which the worldwide anti-vaccination movement has grown. The BMJ itself, even at the height of the MMR scare in the UK, promoted scepticism about the “inappropriate domination of the Western view of mental health,” a process in which “doctors and the pharmaceutical industry” irresponsibly push both “Western cultural ideas” and “a rapid growth in the numbers of children diagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism.”3

Many opinion pieces by the BMJ’s columnist Des Spence have gone further: “big pharma use[s] political lobbying to pervert the course of medical justice,”4 and “A medicated childhood is blunt, defies reason, and is just bad medicine.”5

When some read such views, given the indifference by the “medical establishment” to neurodevelopmental disorders, it is not very surprising that they prefer a different version of events: Andrew Wakefield’s continued fight against Western medicine’s vaccine industry.

No doubt the financial transaction between the BMJ and Deer was modest; it remains open whether the new policy of commercially encouraging “good” investigative journalism, at the expense of “bad,” will have the desired results.


Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d809


  • Competing interests: NMacF has consulted to the Priory Group within the past three years.


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