Kevan Christie: Planned press law may stop thalidomide-style exposes

Newspapers revealed the damage being caused by morning sickness drug thalidomide, but a move by the House of Lords endangers such investigative reporting, writes Kevan Christie.

Journalist Harold Evans, seen in 1967, when he was the editor of The Sunday Times
Journalist Harold Evans, seen in 1967, when he was the editor of The Sunday Times

The potential link between a pregnancy test taken by over 1.5 million women in the UK and serious birth defects has led journalism anoraks like myself to revisit what for many people was British newspapers’ finest hour.

The finding that components of the controversial hormone pregnancy test Primodos, linked to birth defects in the 1960s and 70s by campaigners, deformed fish embryos in laboratory tests has drawn parallels with the notorious morning sickness treatment thalidomide.

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A quick Google search with the keywords “Harold Evans” and “thalidomide” will bring up reams of information on the battle between The Sunday Times and what could then be classed as Big Pharma in the form of Scottish alcohol and drug company Distillers, with the full weight of the establishment behind them.

To recap quickly, thalidomide was found to have caused deformed limbs in thousands of babies worldwide in the 1950s. It was manufactured by Edinburgh-based Distillers on license from the German company Chemie-Grünenthal and the origins of thalidomide can be traced back to Nazi concentration camp experiments. Primodos, dubbed the “forgotten thalidomide” by some, is back in the news after scientists at Aberdeen University found its components caused deformities in zebrafish embryos, similar to the damage seen in human patients.

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Pregnancy test drug had the potential to deform embryos

A previous lawsuit brought by 700 families failed in 1982 and scientific studies on how Primodos affected embryos ceased in the 1980s after it was withdrawn from the market and hormone pregnancy tests were replaced with the urine-based tests still used today.

What makes all of this interesting from a journalistic point of view is to compare the crusading Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans and his dedicated Insight team’s 1972 face-off with Britain’s legal and political establishment to the current climate where the House of Lords are strong-arming newspapers into signing up to punitive regulation.

As highlighted recently by Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield, the Lords are trying to introduce a new law that if a newspaper doesn’t sign up to a media regulator appointed by the state, then anytime they are taken to court, whether they win or lose, they will have to pay all the costs of the losing complainant as well as their own. This kind of punitive legislation would certainly have made Sir Harold’s task all the more difficult, although his was the so-called Golden Age of investigative journalism, where budgets were unlimited.

Interestingly, Sir Harold wrote a letter to a newspaper on Tuesday where he said that the thalidomide families were right to protest against any honouring of Enoch Powell, noting it isn’t just racism that should bar him from being honoured with a blue plaque. Powell, as Sir Harold points out, was minister of health who, along with refusing to introduce smear tests for cervical cancer, ruled out a public inquiry when the thalidomide scandal broke.

Distillers eventually paid out £27m and the UK Government £5m, but it took more than 10 years and was a painful experience for parents who found exposure to prolonged press coverage difficult. So the trip down memory is one worth making, if only to compare the power of the press then, to now.

The Insight team did an amazing job in exposing the thalidomide scandal. Would they have been able to do so if they had faced a frivolous lawsuit they knew they would win, but still have to pay for?