Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Peter Wilmshurst 's reply

Courage is a much needed commodity in medicine, and few have shown it with such persistence as Peter Wilmshurst. Always ready to speak out against wrongdoing whatever the personal cost, he endured a lengthy lawsuit after highlighting research misconduct at the company whose device he was evaluating (BMJ 2011;342:d2646, doi:10.1136/bmj.d2646BMJ 2012;344:e2226, doi:10.1136/bmj.e2226). Last year he emerged triumphant, and Minerva is pleased to report that at the BMJ’s Christmas party he was presented with the first ever BMJEditor’s Award, “for courage and persistence in speaking truth to power.”'

Here's his reply:

I feel very honoured to get the BMJ Editor's Award, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge the tremendous support I received.
I had enormous support over the years from the BMJ and consecutive editors, Richard Smith and Fiona Godlee. Also from Health Watch and particularly John Garrow, who set up Health Watch’s support fund for my libel cases, primed it with a large personal donation and turned up at court to provide support. I got great support in my libel cases from the Libel Reform campaigners, including Sense about Science, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Hardeep Singh and Evan Harris. Many other individuals, including many doctors and a few politicians from all parties provided support. I am sorry that there are too many for me to name them all.
NMT instructed their lawyers to issue a libel claim against my colleague Simon Nightingale, who had been a member of the MIST trial steering committee and, like me, refused to be an author of an inaccurate report of the research. NMT did not serve him with a claim. That may be because suing one doctor had by then damaged their image, and suing another would compound their problems. Simon spent much time checking documents and providing me with advice.
My wife has for 30 years supported my stance and, when old enough, so have my daughters. In April 2009 the Chief Executive of NMT and the Chief Operating Officer flew over to the UK to meet me and offered to end the libel cases and to pay money into "a fund" for my use if I agreed to say that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding and if I stopped further discussion of the MIST trial. That would have ended my concerns about the libel cases making me bankrupt and us losing our home, but my family agreed that we could not conceal the truth about medical research.
Paradoxically perhaps my greatest good fortunate was that the Medical Defence Union refused to provide any support. I believe that if they had agreed to support me they would have wanted me to take the cheapest way out by apologising to NMT, offering a small amount of compensation and not pressing for correction of the inaccurate research publications. During a meeting in Manchester, when it was clear that they would not help, I asked whether they could advise another law firm dealing in defamation that I might try. I was told of solicitors nearby. I went there and ended up with Mark Lewis. Mark said that he felt strongly about concealing medical information and would stick with me to the end even if it cost him personally. Mark offered to work on a defendant conditional fee agreement (“no win, no fee” or CFA). The odds are stacked so heavily against defendants in defamation cases that 95% of defendants lose. So virtually no lawyer will agree a defendant CFA in a libel case. Mark persuaded Alistair Wilson QC and some other barristers to agree a CFA. We anticipated the case taking 5-7 years to get to trial, a 6 months trial and costs to each side of about £3.5 million. So Mark stood to lose a massive amount. When NMT went bankrupt, I had run up legal costs of about £300,000, but NMT had only paid £200,000 security into court. Mark said that because I had only got 2/3 of my costs he would only take 2/3 of his fees. He persuaded most other lawyers involved to do the same. In the end, it cost me about £25,000, which was much less than we expected. I cannot praise Mark enough because during the time he helped me he was also the initiator of events that would lead to the Leveson Inquiry. It was Mark who brought the first claim against the News of the World that involved phone hacking, when the paper hacked Gordon Taylor's phone. Mark subsequently gave evidence to Parliament that an officer in the Metropolitan police had told him that they knew of several thousand cases of phone hacking. The police and Baroness Buscombe on behalf of the Press Complaints Commision (PCC) then told Parliament that there were only a handful of cases. Mark sued the police, Baroness Buscombe and the PCC for libel saying that they had accused him of lying to Parliament. They settled and admitted that there were thousands of cases. Mark went on to act for Milly Dowler's parents on a CFA and others whose phones were hacked.
So I have been very fortunate in the support I received. That support may have contributed to the fact that unlike many whistleblowers, I did not end up unemployed or bankrupt.
Competing interests: I am responding to the kind words about me getting the BMJ Editor's Award

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