Was Dr. Wakefield the complainant in his own GMC case?

19 Feb

Pop quiz: of these two people, who was the first to request that the General Medical Council (GMC) investigate Dr. Andrew Wakefield

a) Brian Deer
b) Dr. Andrew Wakefield?

Ah–trick question! Brian Deer didn’t ask the GMC to investigate Dr. Wakefield. Mr. Deer offered and gave information to the GMC, but, it turns out, only after Dr. Wakefield called for an investigation.

Let me start by saying I hesitated to publish this post as it will be just make it seem like there is a real controversy here. There isn’t. But after noting that the addendum to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) complaint filed against Brian Deer included citations to LeftBrainRightBrain I decided to check into the “complainant” question.

Here’s the PCC complaint. Here’s the addendum.

There is a long “forensic analysis” argument to make the case that supposedly Brian Deer was the complainant. This struck me odd. Why do a “forensic” argument, unless you don’t have substantial proof.

In the matter of Dr Wakefield and the GMC, and based upon forensic analysis of all the available documentary evidence, one is entitled to believe that Mr. Deer was the original and only substantive complainant to the GMC, whether or not he was the ‘Complainant’ who instructed the legal prosecution of the case (which was the GMC through its lawyers Field Fisher Waterhouse).

OK, Brian Deer was the complainant, whether or not he was the ‘Complainant’. Everyone got that? Clear as mud?

It wasn’t to me, so I contacted the General Medical Council to ask a simple question:

I am sorry to bother you, but I was hoping you could help with a question. Is it public knowledge whether Mr. Brian Deer was a “complainant” for the Wakefield case? Was there any “complainant” or was this case brought forward by the GMC itself?

I received a very simple answer:

Dear Sir/Madam

The General Medical Council can act in response to complaints about doctors but we do not require someone to make a formal complaint to us before we can act. We can in fact initiate action against doctors of our own volition. This enables us to launch an investigation in response to publicly expressed concerns about the conduct of doctors, whether or not those concerns have been directly and formally referred to us.

The case against Dr Wakefield, Professor Walker-Smith and Professor Murch was brought by the GMC there was no complainant in this case.

I hope you find this information helpful and if you have any further queries relating to this case please do not hesitate to contact me.

When I asked if I could make this public, I was informed that this information is already public. Yes, I forgot the fact that Brian Deer had a letter from the GMC’s attorneys already. That is from May, 2005. I guess this whole, “he’s a complainant even if he isn’t a Complainant” thing has been going on for some time.

The “forensic analysis” seems to rest on the fact that Brian Deer has communicated with the GMC. There doesn’t seem to be any actual complaint filed, but, as we are told:

But what Deer does not reveal is that on February 25, 2004, three days after his article attacking Wakefield had been published in the Sunday Times, he had written to the GMC…

Yes, according to this timeline, Brian Deer published his article and then contacted the GMC 3 days later. It is characterized as a “spontaneous” communication in the complaint. As in, Brian Deer just out of the blue decided he needed to contact the GMC.

Dr. Wakefield left out an important part of the timeline. Namely, his own call for a GMC investigation. Here is a timeline:

February 22, 2004, Brian Deer’s article, Revealed: MMR research scandal is published.

February 23, 2004: Dr Wakefield states, “I’d welcome inquiry

“Serious allegations have been made against me in relation to the provision of clinical care for children with autism and bowel disease, and the reporting of their disease. It has been proposed that my role in this matter should be investigated by the GMC. I not only welcome this, I insist on it and I will be making contact with the GMC personally.”

Two days later, on February 25, 2004: Brian Deer emails the GMC. This appears to be the first contact between Mr. Deer and the GMC. According to the excerpt in the PCC complaint filed by Dr. Wakefield:

email from Brian Deer to Tim Cox-Brown, Caseworker GMC, 12.16 pm 2.25.04. This is a sixpage letter concluding with the statement “As a matter of public duty, I write to offer this outline of my main findings, and to offer the GMC my fullest cooperation in getting to the bottom of these matters”.

Which, according to Dr. Wakefield, makes Brian Deer the “complainant” in the GMC hearing:

This reads as a spontaneous and intentional contact with the GMC for the purpose of requesting to put before them the substance of his complaint and in fact, doing so i.e. making a complaint.

Spontaneous? I guess if you leave out critical details like Dr. Wakefield’s own call for investigation. As I titled the post, couldn’t one say that Dr. Wakefield is the complainant? After all, it is Dr. Wakefield who appears to have called for the investigation.

4 Responses to “Was Dr. Wakefield the complainant in his own GMC case?”

  1. David N. Brown February 19, 2010 at 04:25 #

    I have previously speculated that the GMC (or at least a few staff) was “interested” in Wakefield even before Deer’s expose, also that Wakefield may have aroused suspicion by one or more frivolous complaints against others.

  2. Brian Deer February 19, 2010 at 08:09 #

    I’m not sure why this topic would interest anyone now, since my case has been entirely proven, and to the criminal standard. However (hopefully for the last time, since I’ve been over this ad nauseam in recent years), all of the charges against Wakefeld were based on my journalism. Only one issue – the prescribing of an experimental substance (transfer factor) – and the detailed heads of charge applying the general issues to specific children – was not raised by me with the GMC and, later, with its lawyers. In that sense, Wakefield and his publicist are correct in asserting that I did this thing to him.

    However, I was not the complainant. As I have said before, the complainant is a party to the proceedings. He or she is provided by the GMC with legal counsel. This isn’t the case with me. As the GMC has explained (again) the regulator was the complainant itself. I was an “informant”, like a health authority referring a matter to them. Wakefield and his publicist made the allegation that I was the complainant for two reasons: (a) to argue that I should not be allowed to continue to investigate him (as a gag); (b) to argue that, since the case was that of a mere journalist, it had no merit. Neither of these were true.

    For me, the GMC proceedings were an investigative tool: an extension of my journalism. Ultimately, only the GMC could seize the children’s medical records, and such knowledge I had about their content couldn’t be used because I learnt these things during High Court libel litigation. However, if you were to compare the GMC’s charges with what I told them, you will see that they are essentially one and the same. There is no reason to speculate that the GMC had any prior interest in Wakefield, and I have never heard of any such thing. Many people approached the GMC after my stories broke, but the issues they raised were considred tangential (eg the Chadwick issue), and were not pursued. And my later suggestion to the GMC, that they pursue Wakefield more directly for research fraud, wasn’t pursued, since there were charges already included, concerning the selecting of children for the study, and the misreporting of their status and origins, which were allegations of dishonesty in the research (and which were found proven). The case was already the biggest ever in the GMC’s history, and it was simply not possible to add any more charges.

    The outstanding question is why the editor of the Lancet, Richard Horton, and the Royal Free’s former dean, Humphrey Hodgson, met together in February 2004 and agreed to dismiss all but the “conflict of interest” in a purported “institutional inquiry” which lasted only a few hours, and involved the pair of them and the doctors themselves jointly preparing their response to the first part of my inquiry. This is a matter I have raised with Dr Horton, who claims that an institutional inquiry took place which “cleared Wakefield”. Depending on his response, I may raise this matter next week with the GMC, in which case it is quite likely that I will, indeed, be the complainant.

    Can it be right that the only way doctors, caught red-handed in research misconduct, can be investigated is through a mammoth and
    hugely expensive public inquiry of this kind?

    In February 2004, Wakefield swanned around saying how he wanted a GMC investigation. That was classic Wakefield. Naturally, as soon as he started that one, I gave very careful thought, and a great deal of time, to ensure that he got what he said he wanted. As occurred later in the High Court, his bluff was called. Would I have bothered if he had admitted his misconduct and apologised? Looking back six years, I don’t know.

    I hope this, for the last time, answers the question. I was not the complainant. I was an informant. Which it was, however, seems academic now, because, with a huge amount of (not badly paid work) by others, my case was proved.

  3. Sullivan February 19, 2010 at 17:05 #

    Brian Deer,

    thanks for taking the time to comment.

    As I said above, I nearly didn’t post this piece as there really is no story here.

    What interests me is whether Dr. Wakefield ever did contact the GMC like he said he would. Neither answer works to his advantage. Either he contacted them, and the “who is the complainant” question is moot or he didn’t contact them and his quote was just empty air.

    I read a comment attributed to you on Respectful Insolence that Dr. Wakefield has asked for the PCC complaint to be delayed?

    If so, I would question whether that is real or just an attempt to set up the story, “I would have pursued this, but I had to concentrate on the GMC appeal”. If I recall correctly, that was basically the excuse given for a previous court action.


  1. Science-Based Medicine » The fall of Andrew Wakefield - February 22, 2010

    […] Be careful what you ask for, I always say. […]

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