Elementary standards of journalism were abandoned when Deer secretly filed the formal complaint
Journalism ethics preclude a reporter’s personal involvement in the issue about which he reports. However, as is the norm for journalists working for Murdoch publications, Deer violated more than one standard of journalism in pursuit of his “big MMR story.” Three days after his first Sunday Times story was published, he secretly filed a formal complaint31 with the GMC against Dr. Wakefield, Professor John Walker-Smith, and Dr. Simon Murch. Deer’s itemized list of allegations served as the blueprintError! Bookmark not defined. that the GMC panel used to formulate its charges and guilty verdicts. By filing the complaint Deer set in motion the “case against Wakefield,” which for a period of 8 years was the subject of his 34 reports — 9 were published in the BMJ.
Deer denied his role as the person who made a formal complaint that initiated the GMC investigation for years. And both the Sunday Times and the BMJ concealed Deer’s role from their readers—even after it was confirmed by Justice Eady in a High Court Decision in December 2006:
“Well before the [Channel 4] programme was broadcast Mr. Deer had made a complaint to the GMC: His communications were made on 25 February, 12 March and 1 July 2004.”
Even after the judicial confirmation, Deer continued to vehemently deny that he had done so:
“I did not lay the initial complaint against Wakefield. This allegation is a fabrication, albeit rather a small one in the MMR issue. The GMC asked me for my journalistic evidence arising from published stories.” (2009)
Deer’s formal complaint and the urging of the Secretary of Health triggered a GMC “fitness to practice” (FTP) investigation. After filing his complaint, Deer worked closely in secret with the lawyers who were preparing the GMC prosecution of the three doctors, an arrangement from which both Deer and the GMC benefitted. The process was drawn out for more than three years, followed by protracted hearings that extended close to another 3 years. The extremely stressful nature of a GMC investigation is documented in three reports that revealed many suicides by physicians during GMC Fitness to Practice hearings. [See Appendix 5]
In May 2005, fourteen months after Deer filed his official complaint, Field Fisher Waterhouse, the law firm hired by the GMC, provided Deer with a letter designating him as an “informant rather than a complainant”. This is a semantic distinction that was used to shield Deer from being called as a witness and subjected to cross-examination in the GMC’s hearings – as is required of complainants (who are usually patients lodging a complaint against a physician who they allege had injured them). By declaring Deer an informant, he was essentially given a free pass to broadcast unfounded accusations that sullied reputations and ruined careers.
Deer’s own words show that he understood precisely that by filing the complaint he became an interested party, and his journalistic objectivity was thereby invalidated:
“If I am as central to the GMC’s case as the cranks and liars say, why would I publish a front page and two inside pages story which wasn’t true? Indeed, if it wasn’t substantially true it would be a very serious libel indeed, and bound to be found out. It would amount to professional suicide.”140