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UK media – a conspiracy of silence over GM health risks

24 September, 2012

Last week saw the publication of the most important piece of research about the health risks of genetically engineered foods in recent years.

It was widely covered in France and other EU countries; it was big news in the US where all the major media carried the story – over 10,000 articles appeared there during the week; and in the UK – monumental indifference.

Only the Daily Mail, the Grocer and Food Navigator (an online news service) did it justice; Reuters, the Financial Times, the Telegraph (an article and an unintelligent blog rant) did cover the story but failed to grasp its significance and fell for the spoiling tactics of an industry lobby group.

And as for the BBC, our national beacon of light, truth and integrity; a single fleeting mention on its website with only enough energy to feature the smokescreen put out by pro-GM lobbyists.

There was not a peep from The Times, The Guardian or The Independent. All of which have, for the last 18 months, carried pages and pages of pro-GM stories fantasising about how genetic engineering is going to solve nutritional problems, obesity, crop diseases and water shortages.

These newspapers have sycophantically reported on small GM research trials about purple tomatoes, blood oranges and cooking oil as if civilisation depended on such things. Yet, they completely ignore this new research which reveals significant health risks and the inadequacy of the GM regulatory system.

France to act; UK stays silent

The research on rats, carried out at the University of Caen in France, found that GM maize, GM maize sprayed with Roundup and Roundup itself causes tumours, multiple organ damage and premature death.

According to Dr Michael Antoniou, molecular biologist at Kings College, London, “This is the most thorough research ever published into the health effects of GM food crops and the herbicide Roundup on rats. It shows an extraordinary number of tumours developing earlier and more aggressively – particularly in female animals.”

French government ministers are so concerned by the findings that they have asked its National Agency for Health Safety to investigate and say that if necessary will suspend imports of the GM maize.

So why have parts of the UK media ignored the story and others just shrugged it off? Is there a pro-GM media conspiracy; is this down to corruption, incompetence, culture or simple stupidity and laziness; or a mixture?

A corrupt media – or just plain lazy?

It’s tempting to ascribe corrupt motives to the almost universally pro-GM position taken by journalists (there are some notable exceptions) in the last couple of years, but the image of brown paper bags of cash being passed around in London’s media wine bars isn’t very convincing.

True, the case of the Guardian does make one think a bit. Since taking Gates Foundation sponsorship their pro-GM coverage seems to have increased to the point, at times, of feeling like the PR arm of Bill and Melinda’s GM crusade.

But no, more believable is the satirical verse which says;

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,

 thank God! the  British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do

unbribed, there’s  no occasion to.’

This was quoted earlier this year by science writer Colin Macilwain in an article published in the journal Nature.

Macilwain went on to say that “The British press – led by the BBC, which treats the Confederation of British Industry [CBI] with the deference the Vatican gets in Rome – is overwhelmingly conservative and pro-business in its outlook.”

As far as coverage of GM is concerned, it’s not the CBI leading the journalists by the nose; it’s the Science Media Centre (SMC). This respectably sounding organisation purports to help journalists understand science; in fact, it is funded by industry and the pro-GM research establishment and it peddles their pro-GM line.

Science Media Centre’s invidious influence

Who knows whether too many of today’s journalists are hard pressed for time or just lazy; who knows if they have the knowledge or intelligence to ask questions or if they just can’t be bothered?

What we do know is that the SMC spoon feeds them information and handy quotes; gives them partisan briefings (possibly in convivial circumstances); and provides them with the first, and all too often only, port of call when something needs to be written.

As soon as this new research came out last week the SMC swung into action and circulated a few comments from its list of pro-GM rent-a-quote scientists. The comments were inaccurate, misleading and borderline scurrilous; they were almost certainly written without the research paper being studied or even read properly, but such is the sway the SMC holds over our not so intrepid journalist corps that Reuters, the BBC, The Telegraph and Financial Times carried them as if they were biblical tablets. In most cases they were given as much space as the research itself.

This abandonment of journalistic standards was repeated across the internet and what is a very important issue, very much in the public interest and to be treated seriously and intelligently, was shamefully obscured.

The science correspondent of one of the newspapers that declined to carry the story has since been critical of the way the researchers and their supporting organisations handled the media.  There might be some merit in this view and the research paper itself is not as accessible in some places as one would wish. However, he far too readily dismissed the status of the research instead of asking questions of the research team or their representatives.

Wanted: an engaged and unbiased media

Some journalists are wary of the SMC and they also tread carefully around anti-GM campaigning groups, but too many of them have abandoned even the pretence of serious enquiry. They swallow SMC briefings, press releases from government, industry and research establishment, they don’t ask questions and they fail to see the wider context of GM technology.

There is a growing culture of fear in the scientific community of raising concerns about the technology. A number of scientists are becoming uneasy but fear of damaging their career prospects, peer pressure or in some cases straight forward intimidation prevents them saying anything. In the absence of a questioning media, there is no outlet for these concerns.

As Pete Riley of GM Freeze says:

“It is vital that the BBC and other media report research findings and their context accurately regardless of whether they are palatable to the companies who make the products or the regulators who have to approve them.  Scientists need to be encouraged to express their concerns about products and technologies without fear of putting their careers in jeopardy”.

An intelligent, questioning, independently minded and focussed media is vital to the well-being of a healthy, democratic society. Not for the first time in relation to genetic engineering it went AWOL this week.