The real scare story
The government's Select Committee on Science and Technology has at last called for the introduction of a Code of Practice governing media coverage of scientific matters. Such a recommendation, which still lacks definition and teeth, is long overdue. Had such a code of practice been in operation in February of this year, for example, the debate on GM foods might have been very different. It might have been based on fact and rational argument rather than on hysteria and pure fiction.
The release of a report from the Royal Society this week showing Arpad Pusztai's research on GM potatoes to be fatally flawed has prompted an abrupt volte face from feature writers and newspaper editors, most notably in the Independent but also in the Guardian. It was the Guardian, you will remember, that originally devoted many pages of coverage to the 'lab whistleblower' Pusztai and the support for his research from 20 'independent experts'. Other broadsheets and tabloids quickly followed in competition for the moral high ground on nutrition, complete with their 'Safe Food Campaign' and 'Say No to GM Foods' logos. Three things were of significance in the early reporting of GM food issues:
Firstly, there was no mention of the fact that the campaign to support Pusztai was orchestrated by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other smaller groups of environmental activists.
Secondly, a number of the by-lines on the articles themselves were not those of detached reporters but of other activists such as Andy Rowell (Greenpeace), George Monbiot (The Land is Ours Campaign and author of An Activists' Guide to Exploiting the Media) and Luke Anderson (Totnes Genetics Group) masquerading, without attribution, as journalists. Anderson, in fact, was responsible for the recruitment of the panel of 'experts' and for the PR spin put on their statements. Despite this, the Guardian billed him as the man who 'separates fact from fiction in the case of Dr Pusztai and his experiments.'
Thirdly, of the supporting panel, at least five were co-authors with Pusztai of a number of academic journal papers. Another was the editor of a book to which Pusztai had contributed a chapter and a further two had worked alongside him at the Rowett Institute. Among the others, one features prominently in publications by the Natural Law Party. Another teaches courses for activists at Schumacher College and three others are well-known anti-GM campaigners. Of the rest, few appeared to have any significant reputations in the biotechnology field, with the exception of Marten Chrispeels, who later commented cautiously, after he seen Pusztai's data, that "the data he [Pusztai] had obtained at the time lacked completeness, and much work remains to be done, including the need to understand whether denatured GNA polypeptides in cooked potatoes (as we would normally eat them) have any detrimental effect."
In essence, there was no real story – just one sacked scientist, whose work even then was known to be so seriously flawed that it could tell us nothing. But in the absence of a code of practice governing the reporting of such issues, the science editors of the major newspapers were either kept well out of the way or restricted to a few paragraphs of factual background to genetic modification – a fact noted specifically by the Select Committee: "Journalists too must recognise the duty they have to report accurately . Science editors appear to have been sidelined over this issue."
The bulk of the coverage was left in the hands of those who relished the opportunity for sensational scare stories, generating images of Frankenstein Foods being secretly pushed onto our plates by the cynical and profit-hungry multinational food companies. In league with a small but powerful group of self-appointed, unelected consumer activists, they achieved a radical change in public perceptions of novel food products and generated hysterical fears without a shred of evidence that eating GM products has any adverse health consequences.
After all of the biased and non-scientific commentary which has filled our papers for three months we now we read what seems a contrite leader in the Independent: "What is needed is for all of us to realise that the complexities of science sometimes do not permit a simple, black-and-white conclusion. This necessary caution will always be undermined by scientists who bypass the peer review process. That is the real scare story." Even so, the Independent was reluctant to accept the Code of Practice on the basis that science was too complicated. But that is the whole point. It is because research findings are often complex that newspapers have those science editors that they chose to 'sideline'.
The Guardian has been slower to cry mea culpa, preferring just to change its tune a little. And while the Independent doubted the relevance of the Select Committee's recommendation of a Code of Practice, the Guardian failed even to mention it. Perhaps the Guardian has too much to answer for in its role of fuelling the most sensational and irrational aspects of the GM debate to allow it to own up to its sins. Tim Radford, however, the paper's Science Editor, revealed a side of Pusztai not previously shown in the Guardian. He reports him as responding to the report of the Royal Society, referred elsewhere in the paper as "Britain's most distinguished scientific body", by saying: "Obviously I don't agree with them. Why should we trust these six unnamed referees?" "Who the hell are they? As far as I am concerned they could be anything."
A Code of Practice will not put an end to the GM debate, and nor should it. There remain unanswered questions about the environmental and health consequences of the production and consumption of novel foods. That is why there already exist strict regulations to protect the public from potentially dangerous exploitation of this new technology. The Code of Practice would, however, ensure that newspaper editors and TV documentary producers think a little more carefully before they attempt to boost their circulation and ratings by scare-mongering without cause and by misleading us in ways for which they may have ultimately to account.