Judge denies MMR doctor's request to 'gag' Channel 4

By Roger
Pearson One of the country’s senior libel judges has refused to delay a
libel action against Channel 4 and warned claimants against using
defamation proceedings as a tactical deterrent.

Mr Justice Eady’s
comments came after a bid by Dr Andrew Wakefield to put his claim
against Channel 4 on ice while he awaits the outcome of General Medical
Council proceedings against him.

Wakefield is suing Channel 4
over an edition of Dispatches broadcast on 18 November last year
entitled “MMR (What They Didn’t Tell You)”.

He claims the content
of the programme alleged he had spread fears that the measles mumps
rubella (MMR)n vaccine might lead to autism, even though his own
laboratory had carried out tests that contradicted his claims.

Wakefield
also claims the programme suggested he acted dishonestly and for
mercenary motives in that he planned a rival vaccine that could have
made his fortune.

Channel 4 pleads justification, qualified privilege and fair comment in its defence.

Mr
Justice Eady commented: “The allegations are thus very serious indeed
and concern matters of considerable legitimate public interest and
concern.”

The judge said it was not only the claimant who would be expected to want an action to be dealt with swiftly.

“It
is important to these defendants that the validity of the case which
they wish to answer should be tested promptly and openly. These
considerations have a special resonance in the context of investigative
journalism.

“There would surely be a considerable ‘chilling
effect’ impinging upon a journalist’s rights under Article 10 of the
European Convention if, when he is sued for defamation with a view to
the protection of a claimant’s Article 8 rights, he is to be frustrated
in putting forward his defence for any significant period of time.”

He
added it had been argued that Wakefield had sought to adopt a strategy
comparable to that generally characterised by the phrase “gagging writ”
– that there was “a consistent pattern of using the existence of libel
proceedings, albeit stayed, as a tool for stifling further criticism or
debate”.

Refusing the bid to stay the proceedings, Mr Justice
Eady said he was quite satisfied that Wakefield wished to extract
whatever advantage he could from the existence of the proceedings while
not wishing to progress them or to give the defendants an opportunity
to meet the claims.

He said: “I have come to the conclusion that
the interests of the administration of justice require that the Channel
4 proceedings should not be stayed pending the outcome of the GMC
proceedings.”

Kevin Sutcliffe, Channel 4’s commissioning editor
for news and current affairs, said: “We are pleased with the judge’s
decision to dismiss Dr Wakefield’s application to stay the proceedings,
and we share the concerns raised by the court that the existence of
libel proceedings should not be used for tactical advantage by Dr
Wakefield, or to deter other criticism, while not progressing the
action.

“We stand by the Dispatches programme at the heart of these proceedings.

The
film was one of the standout pieces of investigative journalism from
the past year into an important area of public interest and we will
continue to robustly defend this claim.”

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