Powerful things, facts.
And as C P Scott, the Guardian’s greatest editor said in his epic essay: ‘Comment Is Free, The Facts Are Sacred.’
In the old Farringdon Road HQ it was actually inscribed on the reception wall. It was a typographical mish-mash typical of the Naughties but it was of its age and the boldest mission statement you could want at a newspaper.
But sometimes facts – shiny, gleamy, facts, irrefutably true and sure-footed – are simply not enough.
This may be hard for some of you to bear. Armed with trusty swords of truth and so forth, the more wide-eyed of you believe that truth will out. And, indeed, it invariably will – in the end.
But sometimes truth takes its time. And in the time it takes for its effect to be felt, great harm can follow. If the casualties of information wars played out in the media are a few political careers then, meh? It is what it is.
But what if those casualties are babies?
The night I failed every mother in Britain was the night the Daily Mail decided to splash on its latest iteration of the MMR jab story – and for a quick recap on the discredited research linking MMR jab to autism see here – while I was night editing a rival national newspaper.
It was – and still remains – an emotive topic despite the facts, despite there being no link, despite the very best scientific principles at play.
And on the night of the 5th February 2002, fully five years after then questionable research, tomorrow’s papers landed at 10.30pm and plastered over the Mail was:
NEW ALERT OVER MMR JAB
NEW research fuelled controversy over the MMR jab yesterday as fears grew of a large-scale measles outbreak.
Scientists have for the first time established a possible link between the measles virus, autism and a related bowel disorder.
The findings were revealed as clusters of measles, which can be fatal, emerged in London and the North-East.
Public health experts warned that record numbers of parents are shunning the combined measles, mumps and rubella jab.
The proportion of children being vaccinated is well below the critical threshold at which epidemics become a serious risk.
The latest research shows that the measles virus is present in the guts of autistic children who suffer a rare form of bowel disease. The disorder was first identified by Dr Andrew Wakefield, the expert who voiced fears about a link between MMR and autism in 1998….m/f
It went on at full splash copy length. There is nothing inaccurate about this piece,. The facts at the time were in order. The trained eye sees the caveats, the wriggle room, the lawerly distance placed between claims and statements.
But to appreciate the atmosphere into which this editorial grenade was lobbed we have to recall the hysteria already at work.
Jab rates were already down, herd immunity compromised and parts of the UK had reported higher incidences of measles. The Guardian’s Sarah Boseley recaps the actual facts here.
This egregious state of affairs could not go unanswered and I got our health correspondent out of bed. They, too, were inflamed by yet another addition to the panoply of provocative jab stories and had no hesitation in writing a Experts Play Down Fears rebuttal.
I printed our fact-laded response. I gave it due prominence. I put the facts to work. I set my store by them. Surely, people would see their error should they read the facts.
I failed every mother in Britain.