MMR row shows danger of checking your exclusive

Getting both sides of the story is one of journalism’s fundamentals. “Have we been to the other side yet?” is probably the second most repeated news editor’s mantra (after “Where’s the bloody copy?”).

Yet that approach to the “other side” is becoming increasingly fraught, as investigative journalist Brian Deer has discovered.

Deer was behind the four-month investigation into Dr Andrew Wakefield, the controversial medic whose research linking autism to the MMR vaccine was published in The Lancet in 1998. Deer’s work uncovered a conflict of interest that has seriously undermined Wakefield’s credibility and reopened the debate over the safety of the vaccine.

Yet when the story broke on Friday of last week, Deer’s name was nowhere to be seen.

Nor was that of the newspaper that was about to publish his comprehensive investigation, The Sunday Times.

That’s because The Lancet issued a press release of its own, two days after Deer visited its offices to question editor Richard Horton and staff about their initial publication of Wakefield’s research.

Deer believes The Lancet is guilty of a breach of confidence and says it had agreed to respect an embargo. He believes it rushed out its own press release to minimise criticisms that were bound to be levelled at it – and that he has suffered as a consequence.

The journal does not accept Deer’s view and says it had a duty to go public quickly. The matter is now in the hands of lawyers.

The case raises a serious issue. To what extent can a journalist prevent a party publishing its own version of a story prior to his or her own deadline? Whatever the outcome, the tale will add to the feeling that it’s becoming a risk to check a story with official sources – as, of course, Andrew Gilligan was so roundly pilloried for failing to do.

In the regional press, some news desks have become frustrated that if they check a council story with the press office, it will be issued first as a press release.

Others think police forces do the same by putting their exclusives on the voice bank.

Worse still is the threat of prior restraint legal action, such as that suffered by The Mail on Sunday when it was injuncted from running an interview with a former Palace servant after outlining the story to royal officials.

All of which removes yet more trust from the journalistic equation.

And that’s a commodity already in horribly short supply.

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