Andrew Wakefield threatens another libel suit

6 May

One of the advantages of taking some time off writing and the internet autism discussions is not hearing about Andrew Wakefield. Otherwise it seems a day can’t go by without some news article or blog post going up where the same 4-5 people will descend and tell us, once again, about how Andrew Wakefield isn’t an unethical guy but a combination of Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one.

If you don’t recall and think I’ve gone way over the top with that phrase: it’s a quote. Yeah, really. J.B Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue actually said that to a reporter at the New York Times for his article The Crash and Burn of an Autism Guru.

A decade ago Brian Deer exposed the first of the ethical lapses to come to light involving the MMR/Autism research Mr. Wakefield had undertaken. That’s when it became clear that Mr. Wakefield had financial conflicts of interest, hidden from the public and even his own colleagues. While this ground has been gone over many times in the past 10 years, it’s worth reading about it again if only to hear Mr. Wakefield’s colleague, Simon Murch, chime in on what it was like to discover that Mr. Wakefield had hidden financial interests:

Simon Murch, one of the leading doctors involved with Wakefield’s research at the Royal Free, said yesterday that news of the £55,000 legal funding was “a very unpleasant surprise”. “We didn’t know. We were pretty taken aback. The timing of it before the paper is something we have all been shocked by. If you have a colleague who has not told you, if you have not been informed you are going to be taken aback.”

He went on: “I am not going to join the queue of people rushing up to kick Andy. But it is right that this has come out: there has been a complete conflict of interest.”

Murch said it was never made clear that the payment was in place before the report was published. “We never knew anything about the £55,000 — he had his own separate research fund,” said Murch. “All of us were surprised . . . We are pretty angry.”

In response for his 2004 reporting of such stories, Mr. Deer was served with a lawsuit. A lawsuit that Mr. Wakefield eventually dropped, paying Mr. Deer’s legal fees. But before it was dropped, a judge made the following statements in a judgment and those comments are worth reading again (at least I think so):

It thus appears that the Claimant wishes to use the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes, and to deter other critics, while at the same time isolating himself from the “downside” of such litigation, in having to answer a substantial defence of justification.

The Claimant in the above being Mr. Wakefield. Who appears to have been facing a rather strong rebuke for “us[ing] the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes..” etc..

Before we get to the matter at hand, here’s one more paragraph of background. Readers of Left Brain Right Brain may be aware that Mr. Wakefield has again sued Mr. Deer, this time for articles which appeared in the BMJ. Mr. Wakefield lost the first round of this lawsuit against the BMJ and Brian Deer and is appealing (docket here). Mr. Wakefield took exception to his work being called fraudulent and himself being called a fraud. Well, he took exception to the word fraud in the BMJ and spoken by Mr. Deer, but as Todd W notes at Harpocratese Speaks, Mr. Wakefield has since let a lot of other mentions of the word “fraud” go by unchallenged. Most notably, to me, a Time magazine article: Great Science Frauds.

Mr. Wakefield has now taken offense at an article written by Emily Willingham, Ph.D., a researcher and science writer whose work appears, among other places, on Emily Willingham wrote an article, Blame Wakefield For Missed Autism-Gut Connection in which she used the “f” word (fraud):

So why is it that no one attends to this clear (to me) link when it come to autistic children? Well, the Pediatrics review by McElhanon et al. happens to cite that reason several times: Wakefield’s MMR/autism/gut red herring and the subsequent noxious cloud that his fraud (link added 5/2/14) left over any research examining autism and the gut. So we don’t know anything about the real underlying causes of these digestive problems among autistic children. The Pediatrics authors state it unequivocally, as they have done before (link added 05/02/14):

It is clear that greater clinical and research scrutiny is needed to increase awareness on this topic and thus support development of the best standards of care. Previous controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine and proposed causal link between ASD and infection of the GI tract probably deterred investigators from dedicating resources to examine GI functioning in this population while fostering uncertainty in the ASD community regarding the validity of this line of inquiry.

Mr. Wakefield responded with a letter (linked at Forbes) in which he has informed Willingham and Forbes that while he isn’t bringing a suit forward now but he intends to bring suit. He also sent a copy of the letter sent to the Age of Autism blog which posted it.

Let’s go to the heart of Mr. Wakefield’s assertion, where he pulls a line out of the Forbes article and comes to a conclusion of malicious intent (he starts with a quote from the Forbes article):

Well, the Pediatrics review by McElhanon et al. happens to cite that reason several times: Wakefield’s MMR/autism/gut red herring and the subsequent noxious cloud that his fraud… The Pediatrics authors state it unequivocally:

On any ordinary reading, the intent of your statement is clear: to imply that the authors of the Pediatrics paper cite fraud on my part. What McElhanon et al actually say is substantially different from your false and defamatory allegation i.e.,

Well, I guess by Mr. Wakefield’s standards I did not give the article an “ordinary reading” as I did not see that purported intent. I stand apart from Mr. Wakefield on many standards. Why didn’t I make the association Mr. Wakefield claims?. Because I know without reading the Pediatrics article that no where in it does it have the phrase “noxious cloud that his fraud”. I know this because I read scientific journals, write for scientific journals, have edited an issue of a journal and more. Perhaps Mr. Wakefield missed the obvious conclusion that the phrase he focuses upon is clearly in Emily Willingham’s voice and that is obvious “on any ordinary reading”.

Mr. Wakefield asserts that the Forbes article was written “maliciously” and that “[Emily Willingham’s] defamatory statements about me will undoubtedly cause me to suffer significant personal and financial damage.” Now, I can’t speak for Emily Willingham, but I can speak for myself–when I write my opinions of Mr. Wakefield and his work, I don’t think about it in terms of causing him damage. Frankly, if forced to consider it, I’d guess that when I write I likely enhance his stature among his supporters and donors, by supporting the image of Mr. Wakefield as some wronged maverick with myself as cast in the role as part of the machine which is grinding him down.

When I saw that Mr. Wakefield had threatened Forbes and Emily Willingham I thought, has he never heard of the Streisand Effect? I mean, here was a blog post at Forbes that had a couple of thousand views and was quickly on its way to the archives. Then I thought, yep, I bet he has heard of the Streisand Effect. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s counting on me and others writing about him. What was it that judge said 10 years ago in a different suit? It thus appears that the Claimant wishes to use the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes. I could be wrong. Probably am. I can no more read minds than can Andrew Wakefield, who projects malicious intent where I see none.

Consider a very recent interview he gave for a podcast. He’s introduced as “one of those dudes… [who] won’t back down” who has been “through living hell”. That group, by the way, is helping raise money for Mr. Wakefield.

So, here I am, playing into the mythos that is Andrew Wakefield, a man bravely facing critics like me in order to do what he does best: listen to the mothers of autistic children with GI disease. Except when those mothers disagree with him, apparently. Oh, did you miss that? Emily Willingham *is* the mother of an autistic child. And *two* of her kids have dealt with GI diseases. It’s in the comments of the article on Forbes.

In case it is not clear in the above, this is far from a trivial matter. Threats of legal action are never minor. I recall when Kathleen Seidel (autism parent and writer) was subpoenaed by Cliff Shoemaker, a vaccine attorney (Mr. Shoemaker was sanctioned). I recall when J.B. Handley threatened Kev Leitch (disabled adult, father of an autistic child and founder of Left Brain Right Brain). Even when you know you are in the right, lawsuits create a lot of uncertainty and distress.

By Matt Carey

16 Responses to “Andrew Wakefield threatens another libel suit”

  1. reissd May 6, 2014 at 21:52 #

    Very interesting statement from the English case – powerful answer to the claims that Wakefield is just defending his name.

  2. Kathy Sayers Hennessy May 6, 2014 at 21:56 #

    oymygod the man just sinks lower and lower into the abyss of his own narcissism.

    • Broken Link May 6, 2014 at 22:43 #

      My opinion is that something like this happened.

      1. Wakefield created several foundations, e.g. the Wakefield Justice Fund, which were aimed at supporting his legal fight vs the BMJ and Brian Deer. But time passed on, and the appeal dragged out with no further publicity. I assume that money was starting to dry up, as evidenced by:

      2. Wakefield tried to raise money for his documentary about Alex Spouradikis. He wanted $200,000 of free money, which he could use as he pleased. Instead, he raised only $9,532. Therefore a new tactic was required:

      3. AoA tested the waters to try to find a focus of displeasure for its minions. They posted several articles about Emily Willingham, Dorit Rubinstein, and maybe others, and then watched to see which provoked the strongest response among their denizens. Emily Willingham also met the criteria of having posted something which used the words “fraud” and “Wakefield”. Thus, she was chosen to drum up financial support from the faithful. And so

      4. The D.A.I.R foundation was formed, a new incarnation of the Wakefield fund-raising effort, and

      5. Wakefield threatened to sue Emily Willingham, as publicized by AoA, and as you say point out Matt, Wakefield is again using the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes, and to deter other critics.

      • Broken Link May 6, 2014 at 22:45 #

        Sorry, that should have been Dorit Rubinstein Reiss.

      • reissd May 6, 2014 at 22:46 #

        Using my maiden name is fine.

      • Sullivan (Matt Carey) May 6, 2014 at 23:02 #

        The Wakefield Justice Fund appears to have folded. The website is down and the facebook page hasn’t been updated in nearly 2 years.

        I think DAIR was set up as a nonprofit–i.e. donations would be tax deductible.

        I didn’t say that Mr. Wakefield is using the proceedings for PR and to deter critics–a judge said that. It seems to fit the facts rather well, in my opinion, though.

  3. Anne May 7, 2014 at 00:01 #

    Well, he admits that he dashed off the letter without consulting his attorneys, whom he claims are busy right now working on a his appeal in the BMJ case, which has been fully briefed up, argued and awaiting decision for a year. You mad, bro?

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) May 7, 2014 at 02:37 #

      He cc’d his neighbor/attorney who helped file the first libel case (Parrish). Parrish’s family, as I recall, is involved in some charity or another of Wakefield’s. He also cc’d James Moody, who is an attorney and parent. Neither Parrish nor Moody specialize in libel, as I understand. I doubt either is up to spending many pro-bono hours reading and responding to the briefs that Forbes might put together.

      Basically, the cc list looks to me like “I know attorneys and I hope you don’t look to closely at who they are”.

      The third person cc’d is the person running his “Defense of Academic Integrity and Research” or something to that effect. Basically the “support Wakefield’s legal bills and get a tax break” charity. My guess is that their coffers are none too full or he’d have spent a few hundred to get his letter on some letterhead.

      He’s acting as his own attorney. There’s a joke about that, isn’t there?

      • Anne May 7, 2014 at 04:22 #

        I don’t know, you’re right, it’s strange that Wakefield would single out Emily Willingham of all people, who happens to be the parent of an autistic child. It just doesn’t make sense in light of all the other published criticism of Wakefield, as you mention in your later post. I’m going to assume that it’s because of something between him and the folks at Age of Autism, who seem to have their knives out for Dr. Willingham particularly. Maybe it is a fund raising gambit. At least one commenter at AoA believes that Wakefield has already sued Forbes and Dr. Willingham, so maybe those who think so would put something in the kitty.

      • lilady May 7, 2014 at 04:41 #

        “He’s acting as his own attorney. There’s a joke about that, isn’t there?

        Here you go…

        “The words “in propria persona” or “in pro per” are typed where normally it would say “attorney for plaintiff.” Judges sometimes warn a party “in propria persona” of the old adage that “anyone who represents himself in court has a fool for a client and an ass for an attorney.”

        Andy, wanking for coins…again:

      • Lara Lohne May 7, 2014 at 05:45 #

        OH Snap! lilady just coined a new nick name for him. Andy Wankfield!

  4. lilady May 10, 2014 at 06:26 #

    Lara, I wish I could take credit for that “wanking for coins” remark. It’s been used for years when referring to Wakefield’s many fundraising activities.


  1. On Andrew Wakefield and the use of the term “fraud” in the press | Left Brain Right Brain - May 6, 2014

    […] Emily Willingham claiming harm over their use of the word “fraud” in a recent article. I wrote about this recently but then thought, “I wonder how often the term ‘fraud’ shows up in the […]

  2. The “Health Ranger” Mike Adams engages in legal thuggery against a critic [Respectful Insolence] | Gaia Gazette - May 19, 2014

    […] post down when it was Mike Adams threatening to sue Entine but didn’t do the same thing when Andrew Wakefield threatened to sue Emily Willingham, which also happened within the last month and a half? There seems to be a bit of an inconsistency […]

  3. Litigating as a "debate" tactic? Andrew Wakefield's appeal denied - September 20, 2014

    […] A similar pattern of using threats of litigation to respond to criticism can be seen in letters Andrew Wakefield sent to others who wrote unflatteringly about him in the United States. For example, Andrew Wakefield threatened to sue Dr. Emily Willingham over an article that labeled him a fraud (pdf). Similarly, Andrew Wakefield threatened to sue the Autism Science Foundation. […]

  4. Vaxxed distributor threatened Fiona O'Leary – they're afraid of facts - July 25, 2016

    […] Andrew Wakefield has threatened litigation just in that way in the past – for example, threatening scientist and autism advocate Emily Willingham,  and other critics like Brian Deer and the journal BMJ in a very similar […]

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