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Feature Secrets of the MMR scare

The Lancet’s two days to bury bad news

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c7001 (Published 18 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:c7001

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Deer's industry

In the three instalments chronicling his investigation into
Wakefield's Lancet paper, Brian Deer gives himself the central role. He it
is who begins the Sunday Times investigation of Wakefield,
who unmasks discrepancies in the paper, who reveals collusion between the
Lancet's editor and the authors and senior managers, and who (last week)
uncovers the pharmaceutical enterprise Wakefield, the Royal Free and
others planned. So it goes on.

It is not surprising that some have applauded Deer as hero in this
seven-year saga of unceasing revelation he so compelling constructs, as he
performs the role of investigator, research-analyst, complainant, solver
of the crime, and story-teller. On busy days he could be found writing copious notes at the GMC hearing and then later presumably writing up the day's notes, submitting copy for the following weekend's Sunday Times, updating his own website and blogging around the world.

That one person has performed this Herculean task, demands debate on
who should be performing these distinct roles and, given the destruction
of reputations involved, whether a single journalist should be granted the
power to exact such a heavy price from the subjects of his story.

Who should have checked the data and content of the Lancet paper? Its
13 co-authors covering different medical areas of expertise, and the
anonymous expert referees, did, corrected it and were then satisfied. But
Deer checks and finds it wanting.

Deer offers his findings to the Lancet editor and he checks them with
the authors and the Vice-Dean. The editor has some misgivings but the
paper stands to Deer's dissatisfaction.

He brings his findings to the GMC and after 7 years the panel of
three doctors and two lay persons decides against Wakefield and Walker-
Smith having heard testimony from expert witnesses on both sides. But were
the panel members academically qualified in the relevant areas of medical
expertise to make sense of the expert testimony heard in a case that has
no precedent in the GMC's history?

So Deer is vindicated by the GMC. Whether the truth has now been
established and the public interest restored by the actions of these two
parties are questions that remain. However, the over-riding question is
whether the GMC, the news media and BMJ, whatever roles they are entitled
to play, are the right tribunals for settling scientific disputes,
including serious allegations of rigging results, where the accused are
denied judgment by their academic peers but must face the ultimate price
of their life-time reputations destroyed.

Competing interests: father of autistic son

04 February 2011
Hewitt
retired
London