I used to think that the Observer was a proper, accurate paper – that when you saw an article in it, you could assume that it was well-researched, probably accurate and, if a mistake was made, the Observer would correct it. Maybe I was naive before: at any rate, the Observer has very effectively disabused me of this belief. Apologies in advance for any typos etc. in the below: I’m sufficiently annoyed about this that I’m struggling not to break into any Stott-style swearing, so the bile might come out in an occasional spelling or grammatical mistake instead.
On 8/7/07 the Observer ran two awful articles on autism and MMR – and got things wrong in many, many ways. The problems with the Observer’s 8/7/07 article on autism rates and MMR, and Wakefield interview, have been dealt with at length – here and elsewhere – and I won’t go over all of these points again here: the Observer got things wrong in so many ways that it frankly becomes tedious to keep listing them again. They have also made a real hash of their two – woefully inadequate – responses to well-justified criticisms of the article: criticisms that were in many case far better-researched, more nuanced, and closer to what good journalism should be than Denis Campbell’s attempts at being a health/science journalist in the original Observer articles. The Observer have now removed one of the two offending articles from their website (although this appears to be for legal reasons, rather than a retraction due to the article being mostly wrong on most things it covered).
In this week’s Observer there is not (so far as I can tell from their website) any mention of their previous coverage of MMR and autism. After previously trying to cover up their horribly embarrassing failures with a bodged clarification, it looks like the Observer may now be hoping that if they don’t mention the elephant that is in the room – and currently stamping all over their reputation for quality journalism – the elephant will go away. However, that is not going to happen.
What I’m going to focus on here is the Wakefield/Campbell interview still on the Observer website – and two embarrassingly basic errors in the interview, which still remain uncorrected. In the interview, the writer (Denis Campbell, I presume) states that:
Critics point out that the US [Autism Omnibus] court case is not about the MMR vaccine itself but centres on the use of a preservative called thimerosal, which contains 50 per cent mercury and until a few years ago was added to routine vaccinations given to children in the US under one. Crucially, it has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.
The Observer is simply wrong to imply that MMR contained thimerosal, anywhere, ever: this is a live vaccine, so adding such a preservative would render MMR ineffective. Moreover, the Autism Omnibus has discussed MMR at length: for example, Chadwick’s testimony to the court offers a devastatingly effective critique of Wakefield’s science. One might hope that a journalist covering the Wakefield case would know about a well-publicised US court case where the testimony (freely available online) demolishes Wakefield’s claims to have a scientific basis for his claims re. MMR and autism. If anyone would like to get up-to-date, BreathSpa offers a nice, clear, detailed account of the Autism Omnibus testimony on MMR. This should be easy enough for any intelligent layperson to read and understand. Maybe I’m expecting too much, though.
Making these mistakes is bad enough. However, the Observer has been told that this is a mistake, more than once. I know that at least one person contacted the Observer about these errors shortly after the issue came out. I spoke to the Readers’ Editor myself on Thursday, and e-mailed him links which make very clear that the Observer got its facts wrong (a link to Chadwick’s testimony in court [PDF link], and to a table that makes clear that thimerosal was never added to MMR in the US). As far as I can see, the Observer still have not corrected these errors this week (though they did find time to correct, for example, an incorrect URL given in a previous edition).
Frankly, I am not sure what to say. These are not complicated or controversial issues. One does not need to have an advanced understanding of science to understand what the Observer got wrong. One just needs to be able to read a court transcript, and a table, both of them written in nice clear English. However, the Observer have had three opportunities to correct these errors. And failed. Dismally.
To make things even stranger, the Guardian (the Observer’s sister paper) has already deleted similar errors in its MMR coverage from their website. The Guardian previously echoed the Observer’s errors in its MMR Q&A, stating that:
the US [Autism Omnibus] is not about the MMR vaccine itself. It is concerned with the use of a preservative called thimerosal, which contains 50% mercury and until a few years ago was added to routine vaccinations given to children under one in the US. The preservative has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.
However, the Guardian has revised its coverage. As the Guardian now puts it:
A paragraph regarding concern about MMR overseas, extracted from a piece in the Observer now deleted from the website due to concerns about its accuracy, has been removed from this article until the information can be verified.
Now, when I (and others) contacted the Guardian re. these errors, it did take longer to respond than I would have liked; moreover, I am not sure why this information is taking so long to ‘verify’. I may post more on this at a later date. However, what is notable for now is that the Guardian – the Observer’s sister paper – appears to have realised that the Observer’s coverage of this issue was inaccurate. However, this does not yet appeared to have dawned on the Observer Readers’ Editor.
It is important to be clear about the train of events here:
- the Observer published inaccurate information about MMR.
- the Observer was told about how and why this information was inaccurate.
- several people took the time to explain why this was the case, in terms that should have been quite clear to an intelligent non-scientist (and to many unintelligent non-scientists).
- the Observer did not adequately correct and/or retract these inaccurate claims.
To my mind, this means that the Observer is either knowingly spreading misinformation on MMR, lacks staff who meet a basic level of competence, or simply can’t be bothered to correct significant errors. Either way, if I see a story in the Observer now I will have to check elsewhere before I believe that the story is accurate. And I can’t bring myself to buy the rag, so will be without a Sunday paper again.