Friday, 22 July 2011

Age of Autism tries to smear Brian Deer. Again.

The head-the-balls over at Age of Autism have been trying to smear Brian Deer for years now, because he's the journalist who's been responsible for bringing to light Andrew Wakefield's lies and deceit in well researched articels for the BMJ and The Sunday Times. The trouble is (for AoA) that they've never been able to demonstrate that anything Mr Deer has written has been false. They've tried to misrepresent what he's written, accusing him of accusing Wakefield of falsifying medical records - which he didn't, he showed that he'd misrepresented the records he'd seen, and in some cases simply made up information which went into his study in order to back up his potentially lucrative theory.

They've now taken a new tack - trying to imply that Mr Deer is involved in some kind of shady journalistic practices, simply because the paper that published his work (not his employer - Mr Deer is a freelance writer and reporter) is owned by the same company which owned the News Of The World, the newspaper recently closed down by News International in the wake of phone hacking allegations / revelations. To this end, they[AoA]'ve put up two blog posts, entitled:

"An Elaborate Fraud, Part 1: In Which a Murdoch Reporter Deceives the Mother of a Severely Autistic Child" and

"An Elaborate Fraud, Part 2: In Which a Murdoch Newspaper’s Deceptive Tactics Infect the British Medical Journal"

and one entitled:

When Does a "Conspiracy Theory" Become a "Conspiracy Fact"?

Let's look at the "Elaborate Fraud" story. Here's part 1.

The piece is written by Dan Olmsted - I'm a little surprised that he's writing this, as he's generally a supporter of the Mercury-Autism link, rather than MMR, but hey, as Orac says, it's always the vaccines - and starts with a short explanation of the BMJ's accusation that Wakefield had committed an elaborate fraud with his initial study on the MMR vaccine.

It explains some of Mr Deer's methods, including:

Deer identified and interviewed parents of some of the children in the anonymous Lancet case series, describing what he said were significant disparities. "I traveled to the family home, 80 miles northeast of London, to hear about child 2 from his mother," Deer wrote of one interview. The child had severe autism and gut problems that she blamed on the MMR.

All well and good so far. But wait, there's apparently a problem.

What Deer did not say in the BMJ article is that he had lied to the mother about his identity, claiming to be someone named "Brian Lawrence" (his middle name). Deer had written a number of critical articles about parents' claims of vaccine injury, and if he gave his real name, he doubtless feared, Child 2's mother would not agree to talk to him. Once she checked his blog, she would be more likely to kick him out of the family home than sit still for what turned into a six-hour inquisition.

OK, so the name "Brian Deer" is very well known among the anti-vax community - Olmsted's quite right. The mother of Child 2 probably wouldn't have agreed to the interview had he given his real name, so he gave a modified version of his real name. If Child 2's mother didn't realise she was talking to Brian Deer, she'd be more likely to talk to him and more likely to set the facts as she saw them out accurately and without bias.

However, yes, Brian Deer, an award winning investigative journalist, researching a story that needed to be as objective as possible, to get the raw facts as accurately as possible, and which might well expose a huge fraud which had put at risk the health of the nation's (and indeed the world's) children, gave a slightly altered version of his name and used a Yahoo email account when talking, openly, for six hours, in the comfort of her own home, to one of the key witnesses in the story. Yes, six hours. Olmsted now describes this as an "inquisition". Yes, it's a deceit, but one that needed to happen in order to get the accurate raw facts of the story.

Now, because this story was destined for the Sunday Times, Olmsted brings up the point about phone hacking, implying somehow that Deer's use of a "fake" name is somehow equivalent.

The Sunday Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch, part of the News International division that has come under a Watergate-size cloud in England for its newsgathering tactics – fraudulently obtaining confidential information, bribing police, hacking 9,000 phone numbers, gaining access to bank accounts, and using large financial settlements to keep some victims quiet.

How is this, in any way, related to Deer's investigation into the dangerous actions of Andrew Wakefield?

Let's see - Deer didn't fraudulently obtain confidential information (he interviewed someone under what's actually his real name - just not the one he's usually known by), he didn't bribe police, he didn't hack into a phone, he didn't get access to anyone's bank details, and didn't pay anyone off.

Olmsted then tries to claim that, when the information that came from this interview was used in the BMJ feature some years later, it breached trhe BMJ's ethics rules, which read;

"Any article that contains personal medical information about an identifiable living individual requires the patient's explicit consent before we can publish it," according to the policy (italics in original).

Yes. This is why the patient is referred to as "Child 2". I certainly can't identify anyone from that description.

Part two of the feature though has an even more non-world-shaking relelation. Let's see what Olmsted has to say:

As she sat down to write the Sunday Times of London on Saturday, November 29, 2003, Rosemary Kessick was beside herself. The day before, a reporter for the paper named Brian Lawrence had come to her home to interview her – and kept at it, relentlessly, for six straight hours. It was more like an inquisition than an interview.

First of all, I'd like to bring up a point here - although Brian Deer didn't identify any of the children involved in Wakefield's fraudulent study, Olmsted just has. By using the name of the child's mother. Olmsted embellishes the story with emotive words like "inquisition" and "relentless". If it had been that unpleasant, why didn't Ms Kessick ask the reporter, whatever he called himself, to leave, at some point in the six hours? Was it because she wanted to tell her story?

Now, I don't know Brian Deer. I've never met him. I have no opinion on whether he's a nice person or not. I'm certain he can be dogged and determined when it comes to getting information, and making sure that information is accurate. I can imagine that he can be a tough interviewer. That doesn't make him guilty of any breach of journalistic ethics.

Olmsted then publishes an email conference between Ms Kessick, Brian "Lawrence" Deer, and various executives at the Sunday Times. It begins with an email from Ms Kessick complaining to the editor of the Sunday Times about the interview style, claiming that Mr Deer

…displayed arrogance in his own perceived ability and knowledge which when probed, consistently revealed a dangerous bigotry and clear ignorance of the many legal and scientific facts salient to the MMR cases.

…and that he was rude and arrogant. Fair enough.

There's also an email from Mr Deer to Ms Kessick, apologising if he came over at all rude.

A few other emails are reproduced, all of which basically say the same thing - "Brian Deer's not a very nice man and I felt he was rude and overbearing when he came to interview me." (I paraphrase, clearly).

OK - maybe that's so, but since when has "being a nice person" been a prerequisite for being an ethical journalist?

To round off his smear attempt, Olmsted admits that Ms Kessick wasn't even quoted in the original Sunday Times story, the interview was mentioned in a followup article when Mr Deer said he had cooperation from the parents (well - talking to a journalist for six hours sounds like cooperation to me), and quotes were only used in the BMJ article in 2011.

Now, if anyone can find anything in there which compares to the News Of The World hacking into the voicemail of a missing (and as it turned out, murdered) schoolgirl to listen to and delete messages please tell me what it is. If there's any evidence of illegal activity - please point it out to me. Otherwise Olmsted, shut the fuck up.

Edit: 26 July.
Sullivan has also covered this at LeftBrainRightBrain - here - and Brian Deer has left a long comment, putting Olmsted right on a few points.

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