Questionable thinking of a TV sofa shrinkhttp://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2092-1974692,00.html
Raj Persaud has let down women unjustly accused of abusing their children, writes John Sweeney
‘Better a dodgy hack than a dodgy quack” is not the professional epitaph the Gresham professor for public understanding in psychiatry at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley hospitals was hoping for. But Raj Persaud, Richard & Judy television sofa shrink and the psychiatrist with the instant tabloid diagnosis of the latest A-list bonkers behaviour, may yet go down in history as committing journalism’s worst, or at least, easiest-to-discover crime: copying other people’s work and passing it off as your own.
Raj Persaud, bit of a fraud — that is the burden of the charge made against the Nescafé Freud. Persaud, occasional columnist for newspapers big and small, and a practising psychiatrist — private and NHS — has been accused of plagiarism. Twice.
Any writer can slip up by cannibalising his own copy, or sometimes other people’s. But the evidence against Persaud is not easily explained as an omission of a note attributing authorship.
It was reported in November that Persaud, who has eight degrees and diplomas, somehow slipped up when he knocked out some copy for the journal Progress in Neurology and Psychiatry. He was writing about the famous “obedience” experiments in 1963 in which the psychologist Stanley Milgram persuaded ordinary people to zap badly performing miscreants with higher and higher voltages of electricity — until the victims played dead. The obedient torturers didn’t know the electrocuted miscreants were in fact jobbing actors and the whole thing was a set-up.
The complaint made by Thomas Blass, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, is that Blass on Milgram was followed by Persaud on Milgram — and that the two articles felt pretty much the same. Blass told The Guardian: “I am reading it (Dr Persaud’s piece) and all of my words are echoing back at me. He had taken paragraphs from my work, word for word. Over 50% of his piece was my work, which I have spent more than 10 years researching. I felt outrage, disbelief and incredulity this could happen.”
Persaud said he was happy to apologise for the error, which occurred because he cut and pasted the original copy and the references at the end were inadvertently omitted. He explained that he became aware of the error only after publication.
And then it happened again. In December the British Medical Journal retracted an article written in August by Persaud “owing to unattributed use of text from other published sources”. Bizarrely, it was about the same story — Milgram’s obedience experiments.
Persaud had reviewed Blass’s book, The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram, for the journal — and had appeared to copy chunks of the original book without quotes or attribution. For example, the sofa shrink wrote: “An experimenter — who used no coercive powers beyond a stern aura of mechanical and vacant-eyed efficiency — instructed participants to shock a learner by pressing a lever on a machine each time the learner made a mistake on a word matching task,” a sentence identical — apart from the omission of a hyphen in “word-matching” — to a sentence written by Blass.
It pains me to say so but the charges against Persaud should not stop at allegations of plagiarism. Much more seriously, he has misrepresented the genuine grievances of falsely accused cot death mothers such as Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony. Persaud has written two articles in defence of the rogue expert witness Professor Sir Roy Meadow.
Meadow was struck off the medical register last summer. He is now appealing against that decision. He told the Sally Clark jury in 1999 that the chances of two cot deaths in a middle-class non-smoking family like hers were “73m to one” — utterly wrong. The Court of Appeal freed Clark in 2003, calling Meadow’s evidence “grossly misleading” and “manifestly wrong”.
In the British Medical Journal a year ago Persaud wrote a piece entitled Keeping Mum Over Child Abuse: Is Media Coverage of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy Putting Children at Risk? Munchausen syndrome (MSBP) is the theory, first mooted by Meadow, that some mothers deliberately harm or kill their children to get attention.
To be fair, I should point out that Persaud has a real go at me in his article for “questioning the existence of MSBP”, for stating “there was no laboratory science behind MSBP” and for comparing MSBP to witchcraft. I plead guilty to all those charges. If Persaud, for example, can prove that MSBP is fully recognised by medicine’s two international diagnostic bibles or the British Department of Health, then I will willingly give him, say, a copy of The Man Who Shocked the World: The Life and Legacy of Stanley Milgram by Thomas Blass. If not, then he can shove off.
In the British Medical Journal he stated: “Precisely why parents abuse their children by inducing illnesses is a question that ranges across several theories, yet experts can still be confident that a child is being harmed by a parent, without knowing exactly why”
This is, in plain English, rubbish. Time and again, Meadow has got the basics wrong: the sex of a child, statistics, paediatrics. He’s been so wrong so often that Persaud’s bland assurances that the experts know best is profoundly worrying.
In the November issue of Prospect magazine Persaud went further, claiming that the decision by the General Medical Council to strike off Meadow was wrong and unfair. Listen, chum, when an appeal court judge says Meadow’s evidence was “grossly misleading” — and he did, I was there — you cannot assert the contrary without appearing to be a bit of a fact-quack.
BBC reporter John Sweeney is the first winner of the Paul Foot prize for investigative journalism