Daily Mail bitten
It is rare for British newspapers to engage in dog-eat-dog criticism of each other, except when competing for lurid sensationalism or disingenuous attempts to occupy the moral high ground. It is refreshing, therefore, to read Fordyce Maxwell's critique in the Scotsman of the Daily Mail's distorted coverage of GM issues.
The Mail's latest onslaught against science and reason comes in their coverage of the debate within the government's Agricultural and Environment Biotechnology Commission (AEBC). This advisory body was set up last year with a balanced composition of experts on ethics, environmentalists and gene scientists. Its Chair, Professor Malcolm Grant, is known to take a sceptical position in the GM debate.
Out of all the points made in open discussions by the AEBC, the Mail chose to highlight the comments of just two members – Matthew Freeman, a molecular biologist and Ben Mepham, Chairman of the Food Ethics Council – concerning genetic modification of animals. Mepham remarked that it might be "technically possible" to produce what he described as "animal vegetables" which would be oblivious of their physical and mental states. Freeman noted, quite reasonably, that this area of GM had all the right elements to become a controversial issue. And the Mail was quick to make it so, announcing that GM could lead to "zombie farm animals programmed to feel no pain."
In his well-worked critique of the Mail's selective coverage of the AEBC deliberations Maxwell writes:
"With 20 commission members including Jeff Maxwell, director of the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, farmers, barristers, broadcasters and the director of the national consumer council, a broad range of views can be expected. But only those which agree with the Daily Mail that the implications of biotechnology have not moved on since Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein and his monster two centuries ago have any chance of being printed."
He also notes that both Freeman and Mepham have emphasised that genetic modification of animals could revolutionise medicine and prevent human pain and suffering – a fundamentally important point that was relegated to the very end of the Mail's coverage.
It is precisely this inaccurate and misleading coverage of science and health issues that the recently released SIRC / RI Guidelines are seeking to address. Certainly, the Mail has every right to take whatever editorial stance it chooses on GM issues. It is equally entitled to support, if it wishes, the undemocratic practices of groups such as Greenpeace who seek to destroy GM crop trials and thus the very evidence which might allay some of our ill-founded fears. But what the Mail is not entitled to do is to confuse fact with conjecture and deliberately mislead readers by blatant selectivity of reporting.
It takes courage for one newspaper to censure another in the specific way that the Scotsman has done. Let us hope that others might join Fordyce Maxwell in seeking to redress the gross imbalance in media coverage in this area because, as he notes, the chance of the AEBC, and indeed the general public, "getting a fair deal from the Daily Mail and Lord Melchett are nil."