MMR, Conrad Black, and the dilemma of reconciling conflicting interests

While Dr Wakefield didn't have a self interest in the outcome, the distressed parents did

Share

Conflicts of interest are at the root of many public rows. The reliability of a paper published by the medical journal
The Lancet into links between jabs for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism has been undermined by accusations of conflicts of interest. As a result
The Lancet now states that the paper should never have been published.

Conflicts of interest are at the root of many public rows. The reliability of a paper published by the medical journal The Lancet into links between jabs for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism has been undermined by accusations of conflicts of interest. As a result The Lancet now states that the paper should never have been published.

In another example, Lord Black found himself answering a similar charge in a civil action in an American court last week. The outcome will determine the future ownership of The Daily Telegraph. And, to move on, it may be that the misjudgements that led to the recent resignations of the chairman and director general of the BBC were the perverse result of a perceived conflict of interest. Described as Labour cronies, the two went to the opposite extreme in dealing with the Government's complaint about a particular news story.

We also see that Lord Sainsbury is again being called upon to put a greater distance between his business interests and his duties as a government minister. And next Wednesday a different kind of case will surface when a whistle blower working at Government Communications Headquarters, Katharine Gun, will discover whether she is to be tried for offences under the Official Secrets Act. The conflict is between what Ms Gun believes to be her duties as a citizen and her duties as a government employee.

Conflicts of interest can thus be the subject of criminal charges (Ms Gun), civil action in the courts (Lord Black), government guidelines (Lord Sainsbury), hearings in front of a professional tribunal (the MMR case), or they simply come before us in our everyday lives as we try to discern what is best practice and fair dealing.

Conflicts of interest can be hard to pin down. I have sometimes wondered, for instance, whether I could request private financial advice from an investment management firm used by an institution where I am a non executive director. I am sure one of the firm's experts would help me informally on a technical matter to do with my own savings. But I have thus far resisted. For there is a conflict in the transaction. It would eventually present itself when we directors came to review the performance of the firm which had privately assisted me. Would I feel marginally better disposed towards it than I otherwise would?

Sometimes disclosure takes the sting away. In a different institution, I have recently chaired two meetings concerned with the principles that should guide the setting of salaries for some of those present. Everyone at the table knew who had a pecuniary stake in the outcome. At the beginning of the discussion, each of the self-interested was asked to comment and then they left the room while the rest of us made up our minds. The second session was required to finish the business off. As there was no differences of opinion remaining, everybody stayed, and the matter was disposed of within five minutes. Perhaps a sharp-eyed reader will tell me that I wasn't sufficiently rigorous in the way I conducted these meetings.

Each case needs careful analysis. Dr Wakefield, the author of the paper on MMR received funding of about £55,000 from the Legal Aid Board. He didn't disclose this. A group of parents had started court actions to obtain compensation for their children's autism which they believed had developed as a result of MMR jabs and they turned to the Legal Aid Board to fund a piece of research.

Let us stop there for it could be argued that a research commission from a public body such as the Legal Aid Board carries no implication that a particular result would be of financial advantage to the researcher. Whatever the result, once the study was done the matter would be at an end so far as Dr Wakefield was concerned. Thus, there was no conflict. The counter argument would be that nonetheless Dr Wakefield's sympathies had been enlisted by the parents of the autistic children and for this reason he was driven to angle his paper to their advantage. Personally I think this would have been pushing the notion of a conflict of interest too hard except for one further aspect. For the purposes of his study, Dr Wakefield did not use a random group of patients referred to his hospital, the Royal Free in London. Rather he took as the core of the sample some of the children whose parents were mounting the legal action. In other words, the study group of children was unusual to the extent of having a high number of parents who strongly believed in the link. Did this taint the research? Yes, to the extent that interviews with parents on the course of their children's illness was a significant part of the information the study reviewed. For while Dr Wakefield didn't have a self interest in the outcome, the distressed parents did.

Lord Black's conflicts of interest, if the Delaware court so finds, are familiar to observers of the financial markets. They partly arise from the difficulty which many self-made people have in recognising that a company is a legal person separate from themselves. The owner of 100 per cent of a company's shares cannot do what he or she likes with his own creation. This is what some entrepreneurs find hard to take. Actually Lord Black doesn't own 100 per cent of any of the companies represented in the American action. He has constructed a web of interlocking shareholdings which allow his stake to control the rest, or so he has assumed.

There are two points at issue here, the status of certain hefty payments that the companies made to Lord Black and his colleagues, and the sale of The Daily Telegraph to the Barclays Brothers. Lord Black's opponents say that the first represents a form of stealing. If this is plausible, then the matter will eventually reach the criminal courts. The critics say that the second comprises the disposal of an asset for much less than its true worth in order to suit Lord Black's private convenience. Reports from the Delaware court suggest that Lord Black became uncertain about some crucial details during his cross-examination. This forceful, highly intelligent man, with business skills, literary achievements and polemical triumphs in abundance stumbled during one of the most important afternoons of his life. At the end of the morning, he had told the court: "I have been characterised and stigmatised as an embezzler. I am trying to retrieve my reputation as an honest man." Yet The Independent reported that later, when being cross-examined by his opponents' counsel, he seemed "almost befuddled". What happened? Did Lord Black at last begin to see for what they were the conflicts of interest he had previously denied? Did he suddenly realise that all along he had been blind to what was obvious to others?

Conflicts of interest do have a distinct pathology. The Lancet even proposes a test, the embarrassment test. It asks its contributors: "Is there anything ... that would embarrass you if it were to emerge after publication and you had not declared it?" I believe that on Friday afternoon, Lord Black began to feel embarrassed for the first time.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager - Bristol

£31000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the UK, the major project fo...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Area Sales Manager - Specialist Interiors - £65,000 OTE

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Car: h2 Recruit Ltd: EXCLUSIVE TO H2 RECRUIT - GLO...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Apprenticeships

£10000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an outstanding opportunity for 1...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager-Alcohol-OTE £90,000

£25000 - £50000 per annum + £50,000 OTE + Car, Mobile, Benefits: h2 Recruit Lt...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Buy from Amazon and Apple and it’s you that ends up owned

Boyd Tonkin
Hughes in Durban in 2009, celebrating the first of his two centuries in the second Test against South Africa  

Sport will always be risky – we must accept that, even in the wake of the tragic death of Phillip Hughes

Rosie Millard
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game