Some months back a few press releases began appearing on my desk from an Oxford based organisation calling itself the Social Issues Research Centre, or SIRC, claiming to be an "independent, non profit organisation founded to conduct research on social issues. I now discover that SIRC is attempting to band with the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a London based organisation of scientists, to form a 12 person working party, comprised of scientists, academics, medical professions and even journalists to draw up guidelines for a code of practice for health and science journalism. This was prompted by the widespread reporting of the potential link between autism and the measles, mumps, rubella jab as "a prime example of grossly irresponsible scaremongering".
And now the government is getting in on the act. Last May, in a report on genetically modified foods, the Commons' select committee on science and technology called for a code of practice stipulating that stories on scientific and health issues should be accurate. Dr Michael Clair, the select committee's chair, is now on SIRC's working party committee, prompted, he says, by "unfounded" health scares the stories on MMR and GM foods. The plan is that any inaccurate stories would be handed over to the Press Complaints Commission.Now, to my mind, the MMR and the GM stories were among two of the increasingly infrequent finest hours of the press in this country, which tends to prefer to spend its time collecting privacy invading drivel about the famous, rather than conducting themselves as rigorous and investigative defenders of the free. All those two stories did was to question the party line of the government and private industry.
I followed the MMR story and, of course with some exceptions, the press got it right in simply reporting that some studies were showing this link with autism. Furthermore, the studies demonstrating the link were performed by experienced, competent scientists.
What SIRC and the government don't like about the story is that the public stopped taking their children to be vaccinated for a non life threatening illness with a drug over which there hangs a question mark. The correct next step for any government which really has its public in mind is to finance further proper scientific investigation into the vaccine, not to muzzle the scientist or any reporters who raise the alarm bells.
What the government and SIRC seem to be saying is that any vaccine, even one with some serious issues attached to it, is worth pumping into the arms of our children. Raising legitimate questions is irresponsible, lacking in knowledge and grounds for professional censure. In other words, the true aim of this working party is censorship.
Call me old fashioned, but I came of age in the era of Woodward and Bernstein, when being a journalist in America was a noble calling. I carry out my work in the fervent belief that a democracy only exists through a strict separation of powers among government, the judiciary, private industry and the press. In vaccination in particular, that separation between private industry and the government is increasingly getting blurred (see Special Report, p 1).
The press has the weighty responsibility to be the ultimate check and balance and to expose debate, danger, conflict of interest and corruption. Had this working party set up in America in the early Seventies, Richard Nixon undoubtedly would have finished out his term of office.
Sometimes we're bumbling, stupid and reckless, and of course all of us get it wrong from time to time, but government and private industry cannot be allowed to dictate what "good" reporting is. If you don't think this is a frightening development, just imagine if a government committee were to start deciding who was fit to criticise Tony Blair.