Vanishing tweets reignite McKeith-Goldacre war

Gillian McKeith

The TV dietician is caught up in a Twitter storm which seems to be her own fault

BY David Cairns LAST UPDATED AT 13:51 ON Thu 15 Jul 2010

Among "Raoul Moat", "Graduate Tax", "Peter Mandelson" and the other UK topics now understandably trending on micro-blog site Twitter, is a more unexpected one: "Gillian McKeith". The TV presenter and celebrity dietician famous for poking around in people's poo is at the centre of a storm of unwelcome publicity, apparently of her own making.

The row began last week when a Twitter user called Rachel E Moody publicly expressed her enjoyment of the book she was reading: "Can't sleep - so excited about the next chapter of #BadScience - It's the one on Gillian McKeith. (not Phd)."

Bad Science is the first book by Dr Ben Goldacre, a full time NHS junior doctor and science writer who has set himself up as a watchdog for the portrayal of science in the media through a column in the Guardian, also titled Bad Science. Goldacre and McKeith have history.

In the past, as well as writing at length on claims on health and diet by McKeith, who he describes as "a joke", Goldacre has taken her to task for using the title 'Dr' when her doctorate is a "qualification gained by correspondence course from a non-accredited American college".

This led one of his readers to make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority that McKeith should not use the title in advertising for her company. Faced with an ASA adjudication McKeith backtracked and agreed not to call herself 'Dr' in any further ads.

Back to Twitter. Moody's tweet drew several responses in quick succession from the Twitter account @gillianmckeith, the first of which read: "Is it that you don't like my Doctorate (PhD) because it's from America and you're discriminatory? USA knows how to educate too."

After going on to accuse Moody of "negativity" and having a "sad... life", @gillianmckeith stated the book by Goldacre which Moody was reading was "lies about another by an ass who makes money from pharmaceutical giants".

Oh dear. Despite what we can assume to be a working week of at least 48 hours on top of his writing commitments, Goldacre was awake enough to notice this. He tweeted: "hi @gillianmckeith, i'm writing a piece about you libelling me in the context of #libelreform, can you pls contact thnks".

Award-winning legal blogger Jack of Kent is in no doubt that the "lies" tweet was libellous. He writes: "An accusation of dishonesty against Dr Goldacre, who emphasises an evidence-based and transparent approach, is a fairly serious allegation. To my mind, Dr Goldacre was libelled by that tweet of @gillianmckeith."

So far, so clear. But now the story gets murky, because after Goldacre had joined in on Twitter, a barrage of further tweets arrived from @gillianmckeith. Surprisingly though, these were written in the third person, and included: "The fact is that Gillian spent 3 years working on her Doctorate" and "What's with all these tweeters talking against the Gillian PhD. Isn't that so last decade?!".

All the previous tweets from the account were written in the first person. There's no way of knowing if McKeith actually wrote any of them herself - but its hard not to imagine that she did as they are so personal, often referring to her children.

At least 13 tweets of the third person sort followed. Then, abruptly, they all vanished: every tweet from the original response to Moody up to the defensive third-person ones was deleted. Unfortunately for whoever wanted those tweets to vanish, several other Twitter users had taken screengrabs of them – and these are still on the web to be read.

In place of the now-missing tweets, the following startling missive appeared: "Do you actually believe this is real twitter site for the GM [Gillian McKeith]?"

The answer to this question is a resounding 'yes'. While there's no way of knowing who actually wrote the tweets from @gillianmckeith, it is clear that the account was sanctioned by McKeith herself. Until recently, the @gillianmckeith Twitter feed was prominently linked to from McKeith's official website and her YouTube account.

"Until recently," because somebody has now changed McKeith's website. The links which used to appear on the right-hand side to Twitter - and other social media – have disappeared. Unfortunately again for whoever wanted the link to be deleted, anybody with an understanding of how the web works can still find it in the page's source code.

All you have to do is visit McKeith’s website and find the 'View Source' option in your browser (on a PC running Firefox, simply right-click). Towards the bottom of the page's code, you'll find a link to the @gillianmckeith Twitter account. It has been "commented out" by somebody – which means some code has been inserted around the link so that it doesn't appear on the page, but it is still there in the code.

We must tread carefully in reviewing the facts. A potentially libellous tweet was posted about Goldacre from the @gillianmckeith account. At that time, that account was officially sanctioned by McKeith as being her own.

After Goldacre responded – not in fact threatening legal action, merely stating that he believed the text was libel – the libellous tweet was redacted. Later, a new posting questioned whether @gillianmckeith was actually connected to Gillian McKeith. At around that time somebody altered McKeith's website in a way which had the effect, intended or not, of removing the link to the @gillianmckeith Twitter account and thereby distancing McKeith from the libel against Goldacre.

As Jack of Kent points out: "There could be a completely innocent explanation. It may be that there was a scheduled web redesign.

"It may be that there were things being said about Ms McKeith on Twitter which would make it understandable for the official website to not want to send traffic there. There are other, less innocent explanations."

Sadly for those who enjoy watching a good intellectual punch-up, Goldacre apparently has no intention of instigating a libel suit. Taking the view that libel suppresses free speech, he has instead asked for an apology. · 

For further concise, balanced comment and analysis on the week's news, try The Week magazine. Subscribe today and get 6 issues completely free.