When one-sided is best

Can it ever be wrong to tell both sides of a news story?

When faced with conflicting opinions, news journalists are not normally expected to establish the truth one way or the other. All they need do is cover both sides.

But this can lead a newspaper down a perilous road. It apparently becomes acceptable to report a single doctor warning parents against the MMR vaccine, even when 99 per cent of the medical profession disagree with him.

The Daily Mail and others could defend their part in causing a mass panic among parents a decade ago by pointing out that they also reported the opposing point of view, albeit much less thoroughly.

The BBC’s Today programme treated it as a controversy. But in taking care to balance the pros and cons of the argument it gave Dr Andrew Wakefield’s flawed research an entirely unwarranted level of credence.

Outside the London media bubble the South Wales Evening Post ran stories about parents’ worries.  Its editor at that time, George Edwards, is now being blamed for the poor take-up of MMR in Swansea and the current measles epidemic.

He refuses to accept blame and says his paper never advised against having the jab. “That isn’t what newspapers do,” he says. “Newspapers listen to their readers, report what they say, and then they go to the relevant people and say ‘what have you got to say about this?’ And then they publish that response.”

This is an easy way of getting great front page headlines and selling more newspapers, but it’s not a defensible argument. Should newspapers listen to their readers when they are mistaken or deluded? Of course not.

It seems hard on Mr Edwards that he is the only journalist singled out for opprobrium when many others are escaping blame for their part in this.

David Aaronovitch, writing in The Times today, calls the way MMR was reported “the Hillsborough of my profession”. This is putting it too strongly, but it was a shameful episode in which many journalists ran sensational stories without seriously questioning the evidence.

Maybe everyone was blinded by the fact that Dr Wakefield’s original report had appeared in The Lancet, and therefore assumed that the research must have been valid.

Years passed before a simple piece of investigative journalism by a Sunday Times reporter finally brought Dr Wakefield and his research crashing to the ground. By then the damage had been done and tens of thousands of children put at risk.

And there must also have been a massive public relations failure. Why could the NHS and the mainstream medical profession not convince journalists much earlier that Dr Wakefield was talking dangerous nonsense?

GARETH WEEKES, Deep South Media Ltd.