It was the spring of 1998, and I had my first job in journalism, working in the newsroom of the Evening Standard newspaper in London.
It was an incredibly exciting place to work. The paper had four regular editions a day, with deadlines at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m., 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and, if there was some really big news, we’d do a new front page for the edition that went off at 2 p.m., “the five star,” that would be at all of London’s railway stations by about 5:30 p.m., in time for the commuters on the way home.
The Standard conformed to my every expectation of exactly what a newspaper should be like. The old legends of Fleet Street were still around, and they worked incredibly hard, but by about 1 p.m., everyone would be in the pub for a long, long lunch. There were no mobiles but if some big news broke, the news editor would call the Elephant pub where we all congregated, and we’d race back en masse to do a new five-star edition. The fact that they were completely pissed somehow never affected the ability of the old guard to produce punchy copy.
Despite the camaraderie, competition to get your byline on the front page was intense. All the editors of the big dailies—the Telegraph, the Mail, The Times, the Sun—read the Standard every day, and a few big front pages from a reporter meant his phone would soon be ringing with offers to relocate to the nationals.
So when one particularly fastidious and diligent reporter, let’s call them X, discovered an article in The Lancet—the most reputable of medical journals—written by a doctor, Andrew Wakefield, saying that the combined vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) caused autism, the reporter leapt on the story.
The big MMR scare story made the front page of the Standard for edition after edition. It was, indeed, a totally legitimate story, as The Lancet was effectively endorsing the research by publishing it.
However, in the usual course of things, the story would have been shaken out of the news cycle in a couple of weeks, a month at most.
But X was determined to keep the story going. X had discovered a pot full of gold, and just as the pot appeared to be running low, X set about refilling it.
And, after the first few direct reports of Wakefield’s research were published, how the story kept moving forward was like this: A distraught parent of an autistic child would phone in to the office and say they had read X’s last piece, and that something very similar had happened to their child. They had allowed the MMR jab to be administered, and shortly thereafter, symptoms of autism had appeared.
I remember taking a call from one of these people myself, connecting them to X, and seeing how a 10-minute phone conversation with that very upset individual transformed itself into several days of front pages. On the phone my heart went out to the parent, who was clearly devastated and scared, but I couldn’t believe that their understandable but purely emotion-based claim that MMR had caused the autism of their child was now being legitimized by making the front page.
And where the Evening Standard led, all the rest followed. Almost every paper would track down that woman over the next few days and “do up” their own “version” of the story in time-honored fashion, and put it in their own papers, also glossing over the fact that the woman was clearly on the edge of hysteria.
This cycle repeated itself ad infinitum over the next few months. Very upset people would call in, and definitive stories would appear on front page after front page.
It was an eye-opening window onto the cynicism of the health journalism industry for me. I’d be thinking, “They can’t run this person’s ravings,” but there it would appear, right on the front page.
The editors loved the story because, as all solid, old-fashioned scare stories do, it sold mountains of papers, as punters sought to educate themselves about how to avoid this worrying-sounding threat to their child’s health. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife even got spooked, and took her child off to France to have the measles, mumps, and rubella jabs separately.
The reporter got the phone call we all longed for and conducted a short and sweet bidding war resulting in a plum new job as health correspondent at one of the big daily’s. X is now a senior and respected journalist at one of them.
So everyone was happy.
A few years ago I found out that one of my neighbors wasn’t vaccinating her three children, with whom our kids play often.
I called round for a chat one afternoon.
She told me in great detail about the dangers of the MMR vaccine.
I told her that the original researcher, Andrew Wakefield, who published the first research in The Lancet, from which humble seed almost all the rest of the vaccine panic had grown, had been found guilty of dishonesty, had been struck off and seen his name traduced by the medical establishment.
I told her that Wakefield based his theory on a case report involving only 12 carefully selected children, but that a Danish study of half a million patients failed to find any evidence that MMR caused autism.
I told her that The Lancet had even gone as far as issuing a rare retraction of their endorsement of his work in 2010, describing the paper as “utterly false” and stating that the journal had been “deceived.”
I told her to read Brian Deer on the guy. He said that Wakefield had planned to launch a venture on the back of an MMR vaccination scare that would profit from new medical tests and “litigation driven testing.”
I told her that I was there, ringside, at the birth of the great MMR panic, and that it had been ruthlessly whipped up by the media to sell papers and to advance individual careers.
My neighbor told me she’d rather be safe than sorry.