Some alarming developments in the media-control initiative over science reporting involving the SIRC, Royal Society, Lord Sainsbury etc.
The SIRC's Guidelines have now been formally endorsed by Lord Wakeham, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. The Guidelines also featured in a recent debate in the House of Lords - see below.
The following excerpts from the Lords' debate are particularly revealing about the agenda of those most intimately involved in this initiative and who now hope, to quote one key player, "that the Press Complaints Commission will enforce this code toughly and come down heavily on the kind of irresponsible and reckless disregard for fact and evidence which has characterised the reporting of many scientific issues in the past"
As an example of such irresponsible reporting the noble Lord refers to how "Dr Pusztai fed harmful lectins inserted in potatoes to rats". In fact, the snowdrop lectin involved in Pusztai's experiments was understood to be harmless to mammals and indeed when simply added to the rats' diet proved to be so. It was only when inserted as a transgene that it proved to be harmful.
It is entirely characteristic that complaints about "irresponsible and reckless disregard for fact and evidence" in science reporting should be pinned onto a total, although widely circulated, fabrication!
Similarly, one of the most prominent acknowledged funding sources of the SIRC is an industry organisation known to have sought to pay academics substantial sums to support an anonymous attack on a critical report by the World Health Organisation! [http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/scisale.htm]
But then much is at stake, as Lord Bragg, President of the New Science Media Centre, supported by Lord Sainsbury and a gaggle of pro-GM bigwigs, made clear during the Lords debate:
"Of course, this issue has an economic dimension which is of crucial importance... There is the sniff of the born-again Luddite in the air, and that could be destructive to our future as a trading country"
To declare an interest, or rather a starting point, I speak as the president of the Science Media Centre, based in the Royal Institution in London. The centre was set up last year to provide a focal point from which scientists can explain the nature of their work and discuss its consequences with the press and the media. We have support from many other illustrious groups and institutions, including the Royal Society, whose president sits on our board...
[Among those on the board of the centre are GM proponents: Susan Greenfield, Chris Leaver and Sir Robert May. It has the open support of Lord Sainsbury]
...Of course, this issue has an economic dimension which is of crucial importance to this country. Put bluntly, if ignorance stirred to hysteria by sensationalism were to get in the driving seat, thousands of highly skilled and remarkable opportunities for self-fulfilment, wealth creation and knowledge formation would be lost. The more we know, the more we can make of what we know. There is the sniff of the born-again Luddite in the air, and that could be destructive to our future as a trading country whose increasing wealth depends increasingly on its brains.
[Bragg goes on to praise the science reporting of journalists like Roger Highfield in the Telegraph and Steve Connor in the Independent.]
The Committee's report includes and commends helpful guidelines by the Royal Society for both editors and scientists working with the media. However, I want to commend the fuller code of practice proposed by the body referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin; the Social Issues Research Centre in Oxford. I played a minute part in the preparation of the report but it is nevertheless of excellent quality. It has many distinguished contributors, including people such as Sir John Krebs and Professor Susan Greenfield.
...If the recommendations were adopted by the Press, many of the problems relating to the public's understanding of science would be solved. But it may be a somewhat optimistic expectation that they will be adopted, although I am delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has accepted the recommendations in the code and that they have been endorsed by the Press Complaints Commission.
...The Pusztai saga and the GM food scares are a shameful indictment of British journalism. It all started when Dr Pusztai fed harmful lectins inserted in potatoes to rats, which he claimed poisoned them. When his experiments, which were not complete and were not confirmed by peer review, were thoroughly discredited, there was no attempt to correct the stories about "Frankenstein foods".
Reports by the Select Committees of both Houses, by the Royal Society and by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, let alone the result of some 50,000 experiments world-wide, were completely ignored. To acknowledge them was simply not part of the campaigning papers' agenda; and having created a mood of public panic, which drove genetically modified products from the supermarket shelves, the press then justified its stand by pointing to consumer pressures.
Yet, when part of the press is indifferent to the truth, or to evidence which contradicts the stand it takes, it undermines the health of our democracy. It is an exercise of power without responsibility--well known, of course, as the privilege of a certain section of society throughout the ages.
...the evidence that transgenic crops are safe is much stronger than the evidence in favour of climate change. In fact, there is no evidence of danger to health at all. Potential damage to biodiversity should of course be taken more seriously; it is a different question. Would anybody gather that from the media discussions?
As the noble Lord, Lord Winston, pointed out, part of the trouble is that pressure groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace come into the equation. They are treated by the media as objective commentators, unlike representatives of companies. They are no more objective than companies; they have their own agenda and are campaigning organisations which depend on membership income. Nothing increases membership more than sensational headlines about environmental scare stories.
On some issues such groups are admirable; on others, they adopt an anti-science stance. They oppose even state-of-the-art incinerators which actually decrease pollution; they oppose all transgenic crops which, on the evidence so far, are likely to diminish the use of herbicides and pesticides. On those issues they have committed themselves to beliefs which have assumed the status of dogma which cannot be shaken by any regard to the weight of evidence. Yet are they ever cross-examined by John Humphrys and co in the way they would cross-examine a representative from a biotech company or a politician? The pressure groups are treated with a kind of awesome reverence that is normally reserved--quite rightly--for right reverend Prelates. The same is often true of those who oppose all animal experiments. They are rarely challenged with any suggestion that their stance costs lives.
I do not for a moment allege that the broadcast media are consciously biased, but there is an element of sloppiness about their reporting of scientific issues and an underlying assumption that they must share the prejudices of the tabloids. Perhaps the most important thing to emerge from the report is the recommendation that we should secure compliance with the Royal Society guidelines, or perhaps with the SIRC code. I hope that the Press Complaints Commission will enforce this code toughly and come down heavily on the kind of irresponsible and reckless disregard for fact and evidence which has characterised the reporting of many scientific issues in the past.
“There is a great deal of potential research investment in the UK that could come from food technology industries, and any concerns about the safety of these foods could jeopardise this huge investment. So I can understand why scientists would be very anxious about jeopardising that investment.” Richard Horton, Editor of the Lancet, Channel 4 News, 15 October 1999