Reporter to sue Lancet after 'shameful' spoiler

Deer: plans to sue The Lancet and has called for its editor to resign

The Lancet is facing legal action after being accused by an investigative journalist of breaking an agreement and rushing out a statement on its MMR vaccine report before his revelations appeared in The Sunday Times.

Brian Deer plans to sue The Lancet and has called for the resignation of its editor, Richard Horton, whom he claims broke an embargo and issued a statement after he was approached by Deer for a response to his findings.

Deer agreed to attend a meeting at The Lancet on Tuesday last week to discuss the results of his four-month investigation into the conduct of Dr Andrew Wakefield, lead author of the report. Deer revealed Wakefield had failed to declare a conflict of interest.

Deer believed Horton had agreed to treat his revelations as confidential until the story appeared in The Sunday Times at the weekend. After a fivehour briefing, he said Horton repeatedly emphasised the confidentiality aspect in front of at least five members of staff.

However, at 5pm on Friday, Deer found out from The Sunday Times that The Lancet had issued a press release.

The release revealed the findings of his investigation – that Wakefield had received legal aid funding to investigate links between the MMR vaccine and autism – and the magazine said it should not have run the report. Deer then received a “curt” e-mail from Horton explaining his actions were based on what he said was his “duty as a doctor”.

Deer claims he has suffered damage to his career and earnings. “Shocked and angry” by his treatment by The Lancet, he is now pursuing legal action. He said: “Like many investigative journalists, I am freelance. I invested a huge amount into that story. When someone comes along and does a spoiler to get their answer in before you, that is very damaging to what I want to do as a journalist.

“Andrew Gilligan got castigated for not putting his story to Downing Street, but this is the other side of it.

You go to people and give them an opportunity to respond under absolute confidentiality and this is what they do.”

Deer also has concerns about the wider implications for journalists trying to verify a story. “It certainly means one has to redefine what journalists should do when putting allegations to people or giving people an opportunity to comment on work in progress. Is one supposed to get written statements from everyone they speak to or what?” He also called for Horton to step down. “If he had a shred of integrity he should resign over causing so much worry to parents and so much risk to children. Last Friday we saw him trying to defend an otherwise shameful position.”

In a response to Deer, Dominic Vaughan, managing director of The Lancet, disagreed with his version of events and dismissed his allegations, claiming “it cannot be the case that The Lancet should be prevented from investigating these allegations and responding to them as it saw fit”. He denied Deer had suffered damage because The Sunday Times still ran his story and said The Lancetwould defend any action Deer might pursue.

The Lancet declined to comment.

By Ruth Addicott

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