5.4 Telling tales
An aspect alluded to by the ESRC report is the importance of narrative: the way in which we organise events into intelligible stories. Media reports construct narratives, and we also impose our own narratives on the information we glean from a variety of sources. Narrative is a very powerful, often-unconscious human trait. Certain narratives, especially those involving conflict, are cross-cultural and deeply embedded in our psyches. They may have an appeal that transcends logic or conventional rationality. An appealing plot is one in which a sympathetic hero encounters a series of obstacles: everyone seems to be against the protagonist who is seen as a selfless crusader on behalf of common good. Andrew Wakefield easily fits this stereotype in popular imagination: the underdog ‘David’ pitted against the ‘Goliath’ of the medical and government establishment.
The factors that make for a ‘good story’ in the media often share elements of a good fictional plot. Can you identify other science-based news stories in which narrative appeal has potentially shaped public perceptions of an issue?
Channel Five recognised the narrative potential in the MMR story and made it explicit: in December 2003 they screened a drama, written by Timothy Prager, called Hear the Silence. It starred Hugh Bonneville as Andrew Wakefield and Juliet Stevenson as the mother of an autistic child convinced of the link between the MMR vaccine and her son's condition. The drama, watched by 1.3 million people, stirred up a huge amount of controversy. Most of the coverage was negative, criticising the drama for being one-sided and for indulging in conspiracy theory. For example, Mark Lawson wrote in the Guardian (8 December 2003):
A series of distracted, sarcastic or conventional doctors representing conventional medicine are systematically shamed and humbled by Saint Mum and Saint Doctor. Scenes in which the Wakefields' phone is bugged and they receive threatening phone calls are casually dramatised, without any explanation of whether it's the drug companies or the NHS or the CIA that is being fingered for intimidation. If you walked into a doctor's surgery looking as lopsided as this drama, you would be sent for emergency orthopaedic surgery at once.
(Lawson, Guardian, 8 December 2003)
Channel Five, anticipating criticism, attempted to balance the anti-MMR message of the drama by following it with a prerecorded debate. Many leading MMR proponents declined invitations to appear on the programme in protest at Channel Five's ‘irresponsible’ dramatisation – ironically contributing ‘silence’ to what had hitherto been a very vocal debate in the media and the medical press. One commentator has this to say:
I can't claim to have been convinced by the heart-on-sleeve ‘heroic little doc versus the mighty medico-political-drug-company establishment’ thesis, but the film was a worthwhile and pungent contribution. Less so was the supposedly ‘balancing’ debate which followed. To stave off the controversy which the drama was bound to attract, Five assembled a panel to discuss the issues. And to emphasise the relative brilliance of drama, MMR: The Debate was ditchwater arid, with crummy sound, amateur camerawork and bad lighting. Perhaps the discrepancy can partly be ascribed to the fact that the film must have cost about a million quid, while the debate came free with a cornflake packet. Andrew Wakefield, Juliet Stephenson and the film's producer were pitched against GPs, biochemists – and a written statement from the Government. As I've said, I'm unconvinced by the film's thrust – but the Government's feeble disregard for the doubters' position can only feed the distrust.
(Courthauld, Observer on Sunday, 21 December 2003)
Whatever the doubts about the MMR message put across, Hear the Silence resonated strongly with parents of autistic children for highlighting the strain experienced by families coping with autism.
The narrative of Wakefield as a misunderstood genius has been reinforced by some of the images accompanying press coverage, most notably a photograph by Phil Hansen in the Sunday Times magazine in December 2003. Wakefield is depicted writing MMR: 1+1+1 3 on a window – echoing memorable scenes from the film Beautiful Mind in which Russell Crowe, playing mathematician John Nash, covers his windows with mathematical equations.
Activity 4 What do you think?
Was Channel Five irresponsible to dramatise the MMR–autism controversy, lending credibility to a scientifically discredited viewpoint? Or is it patronising to assume that the drama's stance will be slavishly adopted by a gullible public, incapable of separating fact from fiction?