Would The Real Ben Goldacre Please Stand Up?

Ben Goldacre is a doctor, journalist, blogger and writer whose media profile has risen exponentially over the past few years, particularly with the release of his last book on the pharmaceutical industry, Bad Pharma.  But who is the real Ben Goldacre- and what does he really stand for?

   Whilst Bad Pharma catapulted Ben Goldacre’s career firmly into the mainstream (and his trendy hip-doctor/guardian-journo persona seemed to capture the interest of the public imagination)- the content of Bad Pharma had more or less been covered already by other writers such as David Healy , Marcia Angell and others- over the years.

   Actually, most of the topics and issues in Goldacre’s book had also already been covered on this blog alone – predating the content of his book by five years ( I set up this blog in 2007- Bad Pharma was published in 2012).

   In other words- for a seasoned pharmaceutical industry critic, patient advocate, ex-Seroxat addict and blogger like me – what he had to ‘reveal’ about the badness and misdeeds of pharmaceutical companies was hardly revelatory at all. I could  have written it myself as I was certainly familiar with most of the information.

All that aside- what interests me most about Goldacre is his association with GlaxoSmithKline.

   Back in 2003- Goldacre received the GSK/ABSW award for his Guardian article ‘never mind the facts’. The article itself was basically a rebuttal piece in defense of MMR Vaccines and thus in turn- a defense of the pharmaceutical companies who make them and somewhat of an attack on those who claim that they can cause harm.

   I am no expert on vaccines or their link to Autism, nor would I ever claim to be- but I am well versed in pharmaceutical misdeeds- in particular those of GSK (I have been researching and blogging about GSK related issues for over 7 years now). I am aware that one of GSK’s vaccines, Pluserix was banned in 1992 and like other GSK medicines-  such as Seroxat and Avandia- not only was it causing immense harm- but GSK were allegedly aware of it.

  From my own experience of Seroxat- I would like to categorically state that I believe GSK were aware that Seroxat might harm me but like many instances with many other GSK products, they failed to warn- because all that matters to GSK is the health of GSK. Profit is the bottom line. Patients- like me- are merely collateral damage. However, considering that Goldacre is a psychiatrist (a fact he seems resistant to overtly publicize) maybe he just doesn’t care much for those who claim to be harmed by psychiatric drugs like Seroxat? Nonetheless- there is surely enough quackery and pseudo-science in Seroxat marketing which could keep a self-proclaimed quack-buster like Goldacre steeped in column inches for months.

   GSK have a murky history of malpractice and deception- their corporate history is littered with headline after headline of disturbing unscrupulous behavior. They are quite simply- pathologically sociopathic when it comes to harming the public. As a physician- I am surprised that Ben Goldacre would be so quick to jump to their defense- surely fraudulent clinical trials, intimidation of critics and widespread corruption resulting in damage to patients- would go entirely against the physician’s hippocratic oath?

Not so- it seems… in Ben Goldacre’s world.

Below is a picture of Goldacre receiving his BSW/GSK ‘science writers’ award from (none other than) GSK’s infamous Seroxat apologist Alastair Benbow (pictured right) in 2003. Apparently the award includes a 2000 pound bursary. (see link) http://www.badscience.net/2006/07/test-2/


Benbow was interviewed by BBC Panorama for their Seroxat documentaries and in (a diabolically delivered) defense of Seroxat he basically eventually admitted that Seroxat caused some children to commit suicide (after previously denying this in the Panorama documentary before it). Chillingly, Benbow seemed to think that this fatal side effect was almost inconsequential in the grand scheme of pharmaceutical depression treatment.

   The year Mr Goldacre was receiving awards from GSK for writing articles in favor of the pharmaceutical industry, was also the year that coroners in the UK were calling for a withdrawal of GSK’s Seroxat from the market (see here).

   2003 was also the year that (due to overwhelming evidence from the public) GSK were forced to abandon their no addiction claim about Seroxat. (see here)

   The year that Ben was posing with an award from a GSK funded initiative is also the year that the UK regulator banned Seroxat for under-18’s due to it’s propensity to make them suicidal- a sinister fact that GSK failed to inform the public of- for years. (see here)

 (Thankfully, for users of Seroxat, it was Ben Goldacre’s colleague- Sarah Boseley of the Guardian -who covered most of these stories)

   According to a tweet (screen-grab below) sent in 2010 in response to Seroxat Secrets, Goldacre, knows the’ Seroxat story well‘ and apparently he thinks it’s ‘vile‘. If this is the case then perhaps he would relay his opinion on Seroxat to his chum Andrew Witty because Mr Witty doesn’t seem to give a damn about Seroxat at all. If Goldacre really thinks that the Seroxat story is so vile- then why be so chummy with GSK?


   Goldacre’s stance on pharmaceutical companies seemed to take a sharp turn with the release of Bad Pharma, which on the surface paints them in a very negative light. However, since most of the content of Bad Pharma had already been covered either online,  by blogs, in news-articles or in print form already- one would have to question whether it really had any negative impact at all on the reputation of the industry? Did it enlighten us to anything we did not know already?

   An insightful (albeit also complex) review of Bad Pharma from David Healy (not so bad pharma) seems to conclude that the problem with Bad Pharma rests not upon the repetition of content already covered, or the many flawed arguments raised which seem to rally against the pharmaceutical  industry but actually often work in their favor, “but on the premium Ben puts on controlled trials not found in other books”.

  You would have to read Healy’s review a few times to understand just how flawed and  -dare I say it- impotent –Bad Pharma is- particularly from a patient’s (or patient advocate’s) perspective. Perhaps it’s justified to ask- if a book highlighting the badness of Pharma actually serves to work in their favor in the long term- what use is it for the benefit of the public? Are we any safer? Possibly not.

   In a video of a parliamentary discussion of clinical trial transparency in the UK parliament from April 2013- Goldacre sits alongside GSK exec- James Shannon, and William Burns from Roche (19:06:00). In this inquiry, Goldacre refers to GSK as being ‘rather badly behaved‘ in the past- he then goes on to congratulate them on their current progress towards atonement (a fairy-tale like ‘atonement agenda’ which Goldacre seems to be swallowing hook-line-and sinker). The irony of this is- GSK have no intention of giving any access to clinical trials which predate 2000- therefore trials on drugs like Seroxat will not be released for inspection (Seroxat Trials pre-date the 90’s).

   I find Goldacre’s choice of words also quite astounding- ‘rather badly behaved‘ really doesn’t describe the destruction of life from a defective drug like Avandia or Seroxat.  “Rather badly behaved‘ doesn’t illustrate the magnitude of a 3 Billion dollar fine for fraud and corruption does it? “Rather badly behaved‘ is the kind of phrase we might use in regards to naughty children who won’t do their homework- not the UK’s biggest drug company (with the responsibility and power to enhance or extinguish human life on any given day depending on which way their ethical compass intends to sway). Goldacre then proceeds to  heavily criticize Roche and their Tamiflu debacle -conveniently leaving GSK looking much more ethical by comparison.

In an interview from March 2013– Goldacre says that he met Andrew Witty, CEO of GSK, before the announcement that GSK will release all trial data relating to its current products, with older data being released over several years. “He’d obviously thought very carefully about the practicalities of it, and that reassures me – he’d thought about how to do it, what the costs would be, and I think it’s to his enormous credit.”  Following the announcement Among one of many celebratory tweets, Goldacre said the news was: “Amazing. Fantastic. Historic.

   Thanking GSK for its decision, he added: “This is the beginning of the end for a dark era in medical history.” This ‘end of an era‘- and ‘the beginning of a new ethical GSK’ concept– has long been the mantra of Andrew Witty and GSK- particularly in regards to crimes that were committed prior to Andrew Witty’s tenture as CEO. I’m sure that GSK is delighted to have people like Goldacre championing (and echoing) its PR agenda- tweets from Ben Goldacre (with 250,000 followers) go far and wide.   Furthermore, these are just the perfect type of glowing PR sound-bytes that- pharmaceutical reputation management consultants- can’t even buy for GSK. Goldacre’s support must therefore be -utterly invaluable to them…

   And here we come back  again to Ben Goldacre and his association with GSK. At every given opening in the clinical trial transparency debate- it seems Ben Goldacre  just can’t resist an opportunity to lavish praise upon GSK CEO Andrew Witty. In an article from October last year (2012) he says:

“I think Andrew Witty, the current head of GSK, is a good guy, and I discuss this at length in the afterword of Bad Pharma: because I don’t realistically think that we can rely on one person in one company being nice, as a strategy to address ongoing regulatory failure in a global $600bn industry where lives are at stake.” (see here

   Perhaps Goldacre is incredibly naive, easily manipulated, under a spell, or utterly gullible? or maybe he genuinely does believe that GSK have changed their spots? I really have no idea

  However, considering that Andrew Witty has worked for GSK in various high level positions for most of his adult life I think it would be safe to assume that as CEO now he would have knowledge of most things that have – and do occur -within the company- including those things which would often undoubtedly come under the banner of big bad pharma

   And Ben… “good guys don’t become CEO’s of Billion-dollar Global Pharmaceutical companies”…

“You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
Thank God, the British Journalist,
For seeing what the man will do
Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.1

What is true cannot be minted

into a falsehood, even by

the most distinguished professor. 4

1 Anon.
4 Samuel Hahnemann.”

(Quotes Kindly Taken From http://www.whale.to/b/dwarfs01.pdf)