Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Robert De Niro withdraws anti-vaccination film from Tribeca

Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxxed made the case for a connection between MMR and autism. Now, he’s crying “censorship”.

Wed, Mar 30, 2016, 17:47


It’s hard to imagine how the Tribeca Film Festival could have made a bigger mess of this. As you should be aware, last week it emerged that the event, ruled over by Robert De Niro, was to screen a self-aggrandising documentary by the “controversial” former physician Doctor Andrew Wakefield. Vaxxed makes the entirely discredited case that vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella can lead to autism in children. Wakefield published a paper making the argument in 1998 and saw himself published in the Lancet and championed by such respectable publications as Private Eye. Not only was the paper soon discredited, but the British Medical Association went so far as to call it “an elaborate fraud”. The Lancet end up retracting the article and Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice medicine.

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De Niro, who has a child with autism, first argued that the film added to the debate, but, after howls from scientific organisations, eventually withdrew it. “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation around an issue that is deeply personal to me and my family,” he said. “But after reviewing it over the past few days with the Tribeca film festival team and others from the scientific community, we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

How you think this has gone, Bob? Almost immediately Wakefield and his supporters began whining about “censorship”. A statement from the production stated: “We have just witnessed yet another example of the power of corporate interests censoring free speech, art, and truth. Tribeca’s action will not succeed in denying the world access to the truth behind the film Vaxxed.” The stuff about “corporate interests” can be largely dismissed. It was the damned “liberal media” rather than Giganta-Pharm that persuaded De Niro to change his mind, but Wakefield does have a (teeny, tiny) point about being censored. Maniacs on comments boards often, when making such whinges, miss the difference between censorship and editorial policy. Everybody has, within certain fire-in-a-theatre constraints, the right to express their opinion — however mad or horrid — but nobody has the unrestricted right to have their work published on another person’s website or, to get to the issue, accepted by a film festival. De Niro and his team are quite entitled to turn down a film because they don’t like the look of the lead’s trousers. It’s their event, after all. It’s not some effusion of the US state. Once such a work is accepted, however, the rules change just a little. The film was viewed before it was accepted. Presumably, the selection committee understood what was being argued. Nothing has changed since.

None of this is to suggest that Tribeca should now be compelled to screen Vaxxed, but they will be on much shakier ground when defending, shall we say, a pro-choice film from pro-life activists. Freedom of speech only matters when you are defending the rights of somebody with whom you urgently disagree. We are at the messy grey area of the censorship spectrum. Nobody is banging Wakefield up or setting fire to the prints, but he has been handed a PR gift that would never have come his way if they’d just turned down the film in he first place.

A sobering lesson in how not to handle controversial material. (It shouldn’t need to be said that our inclusion of the trailer above implies no approval of the project.)