now, where’s Hopi Sen when you need him…

Daniel Davies has long had a beef with the government over its PR strategy towards the MMR vaccine, for which he sometimes seems to hold Ben Goldacre responsible. No, it doesn’t make much sense to me either, but as a student of the Davies oeuvre, I think it can be best understood as a system of interlocking grudges. I personally think spite is underrated as a progressive force, so I don’t have that much to complain about here.

Anyway, what I think this particular grudge is lacking is a sense of what might have been done differently. The official line-to-take was that there was nothing wrong with the MMR vaccine. Among the press talking points of the Tony Blair years, this stands out for having been the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, although this wasn’t as obvious then as it is now.

As far as I understand it, D^2’s point is that the government could have done more to accommodate the concerns of people who were worried about it. This is where I’d like to see an alternative proposal, though. Does this seem to you like a convincing media strategy? Obviously, what follows are caricature scenarios rather than specific proposals.

There’s nothing wrong with it, but you’re right to be worried

Let’s try that one again from the top.

There’s nothing wrong with it, but if you’re rich you can go private

I think I see the problem.

There’s nothing wrong with it, but if you’re worried about it, here’s a lot of content-free warm words and canned emotion. Hey, it’s the Blair government – we’ve got more than enough to go round!

It is worth remembering that one of D^2’s major criticisms is that the government was too patronising.

There’s nothing wrong with it, but we must recognise the Very Real Concerns…

Ah, yes, those. We’ve met them before; I seem to remember a rather good essay on very real concerns.

Further, of course, all of these plans would have had the same fundamental failure mode, in that they would all have been reported as JABS WILL RAPE YOUR MORTGAGE: OFFICIAL by the Daily Hell and the Diana Tits.

I suspect that any answer to this will involve Blair refusing to say whether his kids got the MMR or not. I note that, tiresome prat that Blair was about it, John Selwyn Gummer stuffing a burger into his daughter is not actually remembered as a rhetorical triumph on a par with “I have a dream…” nor even as a masterpiece of cynical PR on a par with “The pound in your pocket has not been devalued”.

Of course, there really was something seriously wrong with the burger, in fact all the burgers, and Gummer bore significant responsibility for letting that state of affairs persist. So even though he’s apparently a nice old church gent who writes books about the environment these days, there’s a grudge worth bearing.


  1. This is consistent with Dan’s general campaign against smugness, I think. Atheists, evidence-based medicine advocates, do-gooders, progressivists, evolutionary biologists … it’s not whether one’s right that matters, but whether one is smug about one’s rightness.

    You’re right to point out that alternative proposals were and remain lacking. Perhaps an early show trial for Andrew Wakefield would have done the job? (Though it’s hard to imagine the government failing to cock it up.)

  2. Cian

    Well two things didn’t help:
    1) The government responding that there was nothing wrong, nothing to worry about, before they could possibly have known that. This on the back of BSE, didn’t help.
    2) The fact that Blair (Cherie probably) hadn’t trusted the MMR jab herself. Asking people to trust you, when you can’t even get your wife to trust you. I dunno, its not exactly PR of the first order.

    I think the media are more to blame than anyone (well Wakefield obviously is the most to blame), but I think the government (and the medical establishment) could have handled it a lot better. And the fact that they still seem to be in denial about this to this day doesn’t help.

    The Ben Goldacre thing. I think that’s fair either, but Goldacre has improved an awful lot. The early Bad Science columns really irritated me, even though I mostly agreed with him. I kind of felt it should have been renamed “Doctor Knows Best”. Whereas the modern Ben Goldacre might be able to head off a future MMR crisis at the pass.

  3. Cian, you’ve repeatedly made this claim that the government did not have good evidence for the safety of the MMR vaccine. Can you expand on this? Why was the data from the yellow card scheme, say, not good enough?

    I felt it should have been renamed “Doctor Knows Best”

    Tough on smugness, tough on the causes of smugness.

  4. Cian

    This is by necessity a bit drive by, as I’m on a deadline.

    Convincing the public that something is true, and providing scientific evidence for a claim are two different things. I was talking about the former.

    If a paper is published in a reputable journal, which suggests that MMR is linked to autism in some fashion, then expecting the public to accept a response that there is nothing to worry about, or there isn’t a problem is really naive at best.

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