Greenpeace anti-GM food activists may well have done the organisation's reputation irreparable damage. In place of the pious deference shown by the British Press to the movement's every word on biotechnology, a consensus is now growing that the mindless vandalism of recent weeks has gone too far.
It is not, of course, just the lunatic fringe of Greenpeace that has been hauled before the magistrates to answer charges of criminal damage. The organisation's executive director, Peter Melchett also felt entitled to take the law into his own hands by helping to destroy GM maize on a farm in Norfolk, and was forced to delay a foreign holiday as a result until bail was agreed.
If these were just rather eccentric activities, quite characteristic of the English upper classes of which the 4th Baron Melchett is so much a part, then they might be forgiven. But preventing the course of genuine scientific enquiry, which aims to answer the very questions that Greenpeace poses regarding the safety of GM crops, is both mindless and undemocratic. So much so, that another member of England's green aristocracy, the Honourable Sir Jonathan Porritt, Baronet and ex-director of Greenpeace allies Friends of the Earth, condemned the destruction of experimental crops. Friends of the Earth themselves, however, were remarkably silent on the issue, but Helen Browning, chair of the Soil Association which sets standards for organic foods, opined that breaking the law was unjustified.
There is something faintly ridiculous about two titled ex-Etonians such as Melchett and Porritt squabbling with each other and competing for the moral high ground in this way. Both have the arrogance to feel that they speak for the majority on environmental issues. In fact both are unelected men of independent means who have no mandate from the British people for the philosophies they espouse. Perhaps they have inherited an ecological sense of droit de seigneur, an assumption of moral destiny which over-rules logical argument or concern with trivialities such as evidence. In this sense they are very much aligned with that most senior of aristocrats, the Prince of Wales, who decries 'tinkering with nature' and seems loathe to quarrel with the Divine Right of Kings.
This unseemly spectacle sometimes amuses but mostly dismays people in other countries. The Irish have clearly had enough, especially after 'foreign' (i.e. English) activists dug up a GM trial crop near Cork. Kevin Myer's column in the Irish Times savaged what he called 'neo-colonial vandalism': "Ignorance and magic are their shield and their armour, which is fair enough: the right to be invincibly stupid is inalienable. But invincible stupidity does not confer the right to damage other people's property, to wreck scientific inquiry by midnight vandalism, to oppose the rule of democratically created law by organised criminality." An editorial in the same paper the previous day was simply headlined 'Science needs a chance' – a more calm approach but lacking the incisive wit of Myers.
Now the British papers have also shifted quite substantially in their coverage of the anti-GM protests. The Express covered the difference of opinion between Porritt and Melchett at the beginning of August and also cited Lord Puttnam's (yes, another English Baron) opposition to Greenpeace's stance on the GM issue as being "dangerously anti-science". It also gave coverage to the concerns of Charles Secrett – the new director of Friends of the Earth (FoE eventually feeling obliged to say something) and the growing dissent within the green ranks. Secrett described that week's events as 'disastrous' and commented: "We had the government on the ropes. Now ministers have been able to go on the attack by talking about environmental terrorists and making the issue of Greenpeace and its tactics, not whether we want GM foods in this country."
Further evidence of Greenpeace's ability to shoot itself in the foot with marksman-like precision was highlighted in an excellent article by Matt Ridley in the Daily Telegraph. Commenting on the organisation's publicity machine he noted that Greenpeace had recently failed to regain its charitable status in Canada, its country of origin, "precisely because of this addiction to publicity."
The Express's shift continued with a piece on August 17 entitled Eco vandals who threaten our future, written by their science correspondent Michael Hanlon. "This newspaper has campaigned on GM foods because we recognise and share the widespread public concern. But in an open and free society like ours, recourse to violence, especially violence backed by romantic sentimentalism, cannot be justified." We also saw the Express being rather more positive about GM foods themselves, now conceding that they "have at least the potential to put right a century of agricultural vandalism." And, as if on an anti-Greenpeace roll, the paper noted that when Melchett was in jail following his maize destruction antics, the supermarket chain Iceland sent him a cake with a 10 inch file sticking out of it. The Express commented: "Considering one of the farmers whose crops were raided almost had a heart attack, it was a crass gesture of support. But no doubt Iceland was keen to highlight its own anti-GM stance with a cheeky publicity stunt."
A leader in the Financial Times questioned both the current role of Greenpeace – and other non-government organisations – in public policy making as well as Lord Melchett's sanity. Critical of its motives and methods the article suggests that Greenpeace's "violation of property rights is not a blow for freedom, but an arrogant attack on a tenet of civilised society by a minority group that represents only its own members." The Sunday Times meanwhile contented itself with covering the uprooting of non-GM maize by protestors at Home Farm, Spital in the Street, a site that was incidentally named by the government this week as one of four new farm-scale trials.
The only broadsheet which appears to be unrepentant of its open support for Greenpeace and their allies is the Guardian, which is to be expected since this paper, more than any other, has been responsible for the current climate of irrational fear which surrounds the whole issue of genetically modified foods. Even here, however, Robin Younge was able to slip a critical piece of copy past the sub-editors: "But [the activists'] strength is also their weakness. Just because it feels more effective to destroy GM foods than to challenge their production in conventional ways doesn't mean that it is more effective . Results are what counts – Action for its own sake is posing."
This unusually negative press has come as a bit of a shock to Greenpeace. Having become accustomed to fawning coverage from 'environmental correspondents', they now find themselves forced on to the defensive. At their UK headquarters in Camden there are mutterings about 'tactical errors' and open questioning of Melchett's leadership of the organisation. Given that Greenpeace has an annual budget of over $100,000,000, supporters may also now start to question whether their money is being used for the proper, democratic purposes they intended. "At times when the organisation is tested, Greenpeace's character comes to the surface." So says their publicity blurb. Let us hope so.