The Story Of Thalidomide - A Drug Against Morning Sickness With Severe Consequences
“Journalism is a man’s game” I used to think, begrudgingly. But this year was when I finally started to see it changing, ever so slowly.
Brighton was the city I chose; commuting up to three times a week, I could undertake my NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) diploma here.
Beginning in September 2017, it was time to forget the prospect of another three years of studying English literature; “Fleet Street” was calling. And it’s lure was too great to say no to. This is the city where “my stories”, the issue I am pursuing now, were allowed to take flight.
Thalidomide is a notorious topic. Taken by pregnant mothers to treat morning sickness in the late fifties to the early sixties, we now know it caused birth defects; children were born without arms, without legs. Their sight and hearing could also be affected. It’s a story I’d describe as “ongoing” for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
While training to be a journalist, one of the main topics is the Contempt of Court Act. While studying media law, “Contempt” was a topic we all grappled with; when in court, care must be taken not to print anything that could prejudice the chance of a fair trial, lest it influence a jury. Know the past convictions of the man in the dock? Not to be printed. Bad character reference? Forget that too.
This has not always been the case.
The Sunday Times, under the editorship of Sir Harold Evans, took up the case of the Thalidomide children. But the paper was hampered in its efforts; as soon as one family issued a legal writ, nothing could be printed. Quite literally “no comment” on legal cases, trials, etc. This had prevented a travesty being made visible for a while at least.
But what do you do, when you know the end result of a game is wrong? You change the rules of it as you go along.
At the time, a parent had been campaigning at the same time; posters appeared around the country, in contempt of court, to raise awareness. It was sponsored, as a BBC documentary uncovered, by Rupert Murdoch.
I had asked if these posters were in contempt, mentioning the Murdoch connection. It was misunderstood: “That was Harold Evans!” came the sharp reply. The work of The Sunday Times became visible in the classroom, my antenna of curiosity growing daily.
Netflix has a wonderful documentary, Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the last Nazi War Crime. It goes into the campaign of The Sunday Times in greater depth-how a newspaper won compensation from the distributor of the drug for the majority of UK Thalidomiders. This acted as a catalyst for the year ahead.
I met and interviewed Harry earlier this year. At the age of ninety, he has a rarefied quality of painting stories with his words; Thalidomide was one of the first things he mentioned, the memory of his campaign ever present, shining. The disgust at what the children suffered was almost tangible enough to touch.
How could anyone not follow this up? As a newspaper reader, I am critical of the fact that there is hardly anything substantial about Thalidomide still being published. Bar an occasional article, I wanted to know more, ask more questions, keep looking at this topic. My curiosity was not satisfied.
Nearly a year on, I knew I wanted to take this story up, make it better, tell it to a wider audience, document the tale of every Thalidomider. Legal cases-such as for compensation-are ongoing, most recently in Ireland; campaigns are still going ahead, after all this time.
Every mainstream organisation I pitched to rejected this with a (sometimes biting) response such as: “you are too young”, “too inexperienced” or “too female.” Because every “serious” reporter has to be a man, clearly. I’m not trying to say that men shouldn’t be journalists, far from it, but to dismiss a story on the basis of my gender? You’d think this wasn’t the twenty first century.
“Chemie Grünenthal” manufactured Thalidomide; they invited me to visit their headquarters in Germany in November. The invite made its’ way to my inbox the first night of Byline Festival; I was homesick, worried about a relative and friend who were ill. I ducked out of the rain, sulking over a plate of chips, to consider what to do.
Ten months; nothing had materialised. At that point, more sources were beginning to talk to me. Research notes piled up on my desk. Byline Media said yes to this story.
My great grandmother had the best response. The gist of a letter to me at the time was “I think you’re completely mad, lass; that is why you have to do this story.” Or in other words: keep buggering on, and don’t you dare give up now.
“The women” helped me along the way. A UK campaigner and Thalidomider said the same thing; asking classmates what they thought, the response varied. “OMG Lyds, this has Windrush written all over it!” (Really?) A woman I was talking to at the festival was jumping up and down on my behalf: “You have GOT to tell Peter!” (CEO of Byline.)
This is the support network of women who handed together to help me push this story along the way. They saw the merits of the story, and if it had not have been for them, I would have given up, given in, left it gathering dust.
To go to Germany would allow me to interview the experts Chemie Grünenthal has, as well as to review original documents. This allows me to significantly expand on what I plan to write; there are new areas to research, new leads to follow up.
This also has potential significance for people affected living in the U.K; one area that has been opened up to me is the work of the Chemie Grünenthal foundation, supporting victims in various parts of the globe.
Written by Lydia Wilkins
You can help Lydia fund the research for this story by donating to this link!