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interview

He wears a thin grey suit. White sports socks peek out beneath the cuffs of his pants. His shoes are black. He is balding and tired-looking, his face a bit doughy and pale between jug ears.

Brian Deer radiates a remarkably bland persona for someone who stunned the global medical community and unravelled what he calls "one of those Aristotelian stories where you have both pity and fear." This is the journalist behind the series of stories that completely discredited the research linking the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. First published in The Lancet in 1998, it unleashed a worldwide public health scare and gave distressed parents of autistic children a place to lay blame for the devastation of the diagnosis.

Mr. Deer, who is in Toronto to speak to the Canadian Journalism Foundation, could be a character in a movie about a private investigator who shrewdly misleads everyone into thinking he doesn't know what he's doing.

Asked why he became an investigative reporter, he launches into an account of his childhood. It would seem that there's a link between justice and Brussels sprouts on a Sunday.

"I had issues at home with my family and particularly my father," he begins. He places his hands firmly on the table and sits upright in his chair. "My father was not a good leader. He was very irrational. I have a very strong memory of being forced Sunday after Sunday to sit there and eat Brussels sprouts."

He wrinkles his nose in remembered disgust. "I absolutely hated them. But he would say, 'There's nothing not to like about them.' I could not leave the table until I ate them. And that was an example of an arbitrary imposition of his values on my perception, and I really do think some part of my character was formed out of the injustice of that." He shrugs.

Investigating himself, like any subject, is a matter of habit.

Perhaps Mr. Deer is inclined to dredge up past influences, however innocuous, because that's his work - getting to the bottom of things.

Seven years ago, Mr. Deer, a freelance journalist who works mostly for The Sunday Times in London, began an investigation into research conducted in the 1990s, which had spawned a worldwide debate about the safety and well-being of children. The published research showed a link between the MMR vaccine, routinely given to children in the first years of life, to the onset of autism, a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years, and affects a child's social behaviour and communication skills. Out of fear, many parents refused to immunize their children.

The final outcome of Mr. Deer's investigation came last month, when Andrew Wakefield, the lead researcher, as well as two of his colleagues, saw their reputations torn to shreds in a medical misconduct inquiry, the longest in history, by the General Medical Council in the United Kingdom. More than 30 charges, including four counts of dishonesty in regard to money, research and public statements, were proven against Dr. Wakefield. The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010.

It all began as a routine assignment in 2004. Having previously published an investigative series on a doctor who fabricated research on the contraceptive pill and on a large British drug company, Mr. Deer specialized in contentious public interest issues.

The MMR research paper, which triggered a high-profile anti-vaccine campaign, led by such celebrities as actress Jenny McCarthy, involved 12 children between the ages of three and nine. All had brain disorders. The parents of eight of them reported that signs of autism arose within days of the children receiving the MMR vaccine.

"It was just too cute," Mr. Deer says of the findings. Through the Freedom of Information Act, he discovered that Dr. Wakefield's research had been funded by the British Legal Aid fund, and that the children had been recruited through lawyers and anti-vaccine groups.

Dr. Wakefield sued him and The Sunday Times for libel, but later withdrew the charges and was forced to pay Mr. Deer's legal costs, which amounted to £1.4 million (almost $3-million). In the subsequent medical inquiry, Dr. Wakefield was shown to have had "a callous disregard" for the "distress and pain" of the developmentally challenged children, some of whom were subjected to invasive "high risk" procedures, including lumbar punctures, without clinical reasons.

After the first story ran in 2004, Mr. Deer, who is unmarried and has no children, also revealed that Dr. Wakefield had patented a single measles vaccine after creating fear about the standard MMR shot.

To this day, Dr. Wakefield remains unrepentant. He boycotted the legal inquiry just as he has avoided any interview with Mr. Deer. A father of four children, he has a large ranch in Austin, Texas. Some parents in the anti-vaccine community, enabled by the Internet, have falsely accused Mr. Deer of mounting a kangaroo court against Dr. Wakefield.

But if Mr. Deer's faith in investigative reporting has been affirmed - "There's some pleasure in learning that 47 per cent of Americans in a Harris opinion poll say they heard these [research]claims were fraudulent" - the process of uncovering the truth has taken its toll on him. "It's having this focus on conflict and misconduct, this fraud and negativity, in my life the whole time." He sighs and shrugs again. "I wish I had done TV reviews or sports."

While the consequences of Dr. Wakefield's research were serious - immunization rates in Britain dropped dramatically and measles outbreaks ensued - it also gave parents of autistic children a purpose (however ill-founded) in which to find solace. How does he feel about taking that away?

"I can't think through the consequences of trying to tell the truth," he stutters, seemingly surprised by the question. After a thoughtful pause he adds: "I think those parents are freer for having the truth than being caught in denial and deception."