Friday, 4 October 2013

Just What Is It With The BBC?

Last May in the USA a brave lady called Tami Canal started a movement called March Against Monsanto, because it had proved impossible to have food containing genetically modified ingredients labelled as such in California. Initially she hoped for support from perhaps 3000 people. In the event, on the Saturday in question it was estimated that two million people in 436 cities in 52 countries turned out with banners to express their support, first of all for the principle that GM food should be so labelled, but also for the campaign against the use of GMOs in our food chain.

I would have thought that was a pretty major event! But try as I might, I was unable to find any reference to it in any of the BBC’s news coverage anywhere!

The event is being planned again for October 12th. I wonder if it will make the news this time.

Like most disappointments, I allowed this one to fade from my thoughts.

In June Owen Paterson, Environment Secretary, (an avowed climate change sceptic, by the way) gave a memorable speech to Rothamsted Research Centre in which he expressed enthusiastic support for GM crops, basing his enthusiasm on a selection of ‘facts’ which even his most loyal supporters would have had difficulty swallowing. This speech, however, received copious BBC coverage; as did the Prime Minister’s endorsement of the process.

In August, Dara O Briain’s Science Club programme went out with a ‘fun’ piece about using genetic modification to combat malaria. Now whatever you may think about the principle, this particular process is not without pitfalls and is far, far from fool-proof. And yet the programme was screened in such a way as to leave the viewer with the impression that genetic modification was ‘it’, ‘the answer’, problem solved. No room for doubt!

On September 18th, the BBC ran the first episode of Science Britannica with Professor Brian Cox, who is a particle physicist (O Briain studied maths and physics) as well as being a rather ubiquitous media star. I was watching it idly with half an eye, it not being on my list of things I must not miss, when Prof. Cox started talking about GM crops. By the time I was fully awake, the 5 minute section was long gone. I was away from home at the time, so my feeling of unease at the spin being put on GMOs by Cox was put on hold until I got home.

Then I was trawling through iPlayer and decided to run the programme again. This time the spin made me not just uneasy but angry!

Here is the letter I have written to the BBC.

BBC Complaints
PO Box 1922

Dear Sirs

Science Britannica episode 1
Broadcast on 18th September at 9 pm

I have recently watched, for the second time, the first episode of Science Britannica, and was very concerned at the evident bias of the programme regarding GM crops, about 40 minutes in to the programme. It was probably the most prejudicial five minutes of television I have seen in many years. This bias has appeared before in a previous program, Dara O Briain’s Science Club. It is becoming clear that the BBC, along with certain politicians, is keen to portray the anti GMO lobby as either nonexistent, or ignorant, fearful, and anti-science.

It is certainly the case that on the subject of climate change, the BBC have been criticised for giving disproportionate air time and credibility to climate change ‘deniers’ and I would echo that criticism, because there is no longer a scientific rationale for their position. But to imply, as Brian Cox does, that there is no scientific rationale for the position of the anti GMO lobby is to misunderstand the situation completely, and I would expect a more balanced approach from him and from a BBC science-based programme.

As with the ‘Science Club’ programme before it, the case for GM crops was made in a way which suggested that no credible opposing view exists. Professor Cox appeared to regret that scientists ‘have not always been able to control the debate’, but these programmes make it clear that they are trying to do just that. Cox suggests that ‘public opinion has been led by a vigorous anti GM campaign that started in the 1990s, which left many people dead set against GM crops’. This statement was accompanied by a film of white-suited figures jumping up and down in a field. That was as close as we have come to hearing a view from anyone who is against GM food, although today’s concerns arise not from those 1990s protests but from substantial research into the effects of GM food on both agriculture and animals, not just in a laboratory, but also in the field.

Cox continues, ’There are fears that the crops may contaminate the environment or that they may be unsafe to eat, and underlying it all is a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong about meddling with life at such a basic level.’ It is clear that Cox has not taken the time to listen to any of the premises which give rise to the opposition to GMOs. In the Americas the environment has already been irretrievably contaminated. Many ill patients in the USA have been prescribed an organic diet by their doctors, to escape the effect of the GM ingredients in almost all American food; this prescription proving successful.

Professor Cox’s interview with Professor Jones starts with an inane question about the label ‘Frankenfood’, inane because this was a journalist’s term, not one espoused by those concerned about the process, and Jones’ response was as predictable as it was banal. Cox raises the spectre of the ‘unnatural’ process, again prompting a predictable response from Jones – a response I might have used myself!

Jones rhetorically asks the obvious question, ‘What is the least bad way of protecting our crops from disease and pests, or reducing the losses caused by weeds?’ and the viewer is left to conclude that GMOs must be that least bad way.

Then Cox baldly states that Professor Jones’ view ‘is also backed up by a vast body of research that shows it to be safe and effective.’

I challenge Professor Cox to find any of that vast body of evidence. (Substantial Equivalence testing doesn’t prove anything!) I used to share Brian Cox’s willing acceptance of the GMO philosophy, until I discovered that there is no substantial research which shows that GM food is safe, and that there are many reputable and peer-reviewed scientists who say that it is not, with the evidence from tests on animals to substantiate their view. As to the effectiveness of the process, there is overwhelming evidence throughout the Americas and India which shows that the emerging disadvantages of GM crops outweigh the advantages, and that alternative less invasive science-based agricultural methods are more productive.

Professor Cox expresses himself baffled as he feels that simply presenting the evidence should be sufficient to convince us laymen. A more productive dialogue might emerge if he was to present all the evidence. He calls for effective public engagement. Does he mean that? There are plenty of scientists with credentials as worthy as his who would be happy to ‘engage’ with him and with Professor Jones.

I hope that you will be able to investigate the one-sided approach to this matter exemplified in this programme, with a view to re-establishing the reputation for fairness which used to be the hallmark of BBC programming.

I look forward to your early reply

In the past I have ignored suggestions that the BBC’s impartiality is a myth. But now I am beginning to wonder. It is crystal clear that the unscientific Mr Paterson has formed his views based on the scientific opinions he is given by his establishment advisers. It is certainly the case that those opinions are coloured by the GM industry, or at least their extremely well funded propaganda machine. It can be proved that as soon as a study emerges that finds fault with any aspect of GM crops, that propaganda machine will take steps to discredit it. The same tactics were used by the tobacco industry for years, and are still being used by the oil industry in respect of global warming. Happily both the politicians and the BBC have realised that the positions taken by those industries have been discredited some time ago.

All the same, when it is increasingly clear that the policies of this Government are guided by the demands of Big Business (just listen to David Cameron’s conference speech!) it is disconcerting to think that the policies of the BBC are increasingly influenced by the Government.