Are there any more weasly weasel words than "I just want to start a debate"? The phrase is a favourite of shy conspiracy theorists and closet doomsday prophets. "Look, I'm not saying that immigration is fuelling devil worship. I just a want to start a debate about the issue." "I don't know if George Bush ordered the destruction of the Twin Towers. I am just asking the question." Such people are invariably saying exactly the thing they claim not to be saying.
To be fair, Robert De Niro used neither of those constructions when interviewed on US television this week about his decision, as founder of Tribeca Film Festival, to cancel a film that argues a connection between vaccination and autism.
Sounding distinctly unhappy about being unable to screen Vaxxed (directed by the former gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield), De Niro grumpily said: "Let's just find out the truth." That counts as a variation on the theme.
A few more half-arguments and obfuscations were tossed around as he attempted to further muddy the waters. Vaccination “does benefit the drug companies,” he said.
Do we need to say it again? Only the most naive Pollyanna believes that pharmaceuticals never behave cynically, but that doesn’t make the myth that vaccination triggers autism any more plausible. It benefits the drug companies when I take ibuprofen the day after drinking a vat of whiskey. But my head still feels a great deal less sore.
Begin in this fashion and before long you’re saying stuff like: “Do you believe anything a man in a white coat tells you? Do you? Huh? Huh? Did you know that ultrasound was developed by the US navy? Yet you’ll let them point it at your unborn child? Huh? Huh?”
De Niro and his wife, Grace Hightower, have a child with autism. We must, therefore, allow that his doubts about vaccination are tied up with traumatic personal experience. So the parents deserve sympathy. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine how this incident could have been handled worse.
In March news emerged, to gasps of astonishment, that Tribeca – one of the half-dozen most prestigious festivals in the US – was to screen Vaxxed.
The film finds Wakefield returning to the arguments that caused such disharmony when presented in a paper for the Lancet in 1998. The article was subsequently discredited, and Wakefield was struck off the medical register. With Vaxxed the former doctor again attempts to draw connections between the MMR vaccine and the rise of autism diagnoses.
The reaction was deafening. Penny Lane, a documentarian with connections to the festival, wrote an open letter pointing out that “the anti-vaccination hoax has been completely discredited . . . Some people will walk away from your festival having been convinced . . . not to vaccinate their children. And very possibly people will die as a result.”
Michael Specter, who writes about medicine for the New Yorker, went further. "This isn't someone who has a 'point of view'," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It's comparable to Leni Riefenstahl making a movie about the Third Reich, or Mike Tyson making a movie about violence toward women." Phew!
The festival was now in an impossible position. Every such event has the right to turn down any film for any reason it chooses. Discretion is absolute. If, however, a movie has been selected then, unless fresh evidence emerges of immoral practice, it is reasonable to expect the organisers to stand by their decision.
De Niro and his team knew all they needed to know about Wakefield when they listed the film in the programme. They should have expected the kickback that later came their way. There is no hypocrisy involved in arguing that Vaxxed should not have been selected but that, once it had been included, it should have been screened as agreed.
Aside from anything else the cancellation made it inevitable that Wakefield would begin bleating about censorship. Sure enough: "It's moved from a vaccine issue and civil-rights issue to a first-amendment issue." (That amendment to the US constitution prohibits the abridgement of freedom of speech.)
To the screeching of the world’s smallest violin, Wakefield exaggerates his case. But the story, once again, reminds us that freedom of speech matters only when we grant it to people with whom we profoundly disagree.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t draw a comparison with the misguided (although understandable) protests aimed at shutting down Donald Trump’s terrifying rallies. But I think it’s worth starting a debate about that.
Do you see what I did there?