This is the second part of our response to an article attacking GM Watch published on AgBioView by its "guest editor", Andrew Apel.
Apel's article can be found at
Part 1 of our response is at
Propaganda, Fraud and Libel - a response (part 2)
In Propaganda, Fraud and Libel, Andrew Apel attacks GM Watch over an article on our website originally entitled Award for a Fraud.
The article was about an award winning scientific paper by Doug Powell, Shane Morris and two other authors, published in the British Food Journal. This paper described research carried out at a Canadian farm store that reported a marked consumer preference for GM (over non-GM) sweet corn.
Apel claims our article "implicated Shane Morris, a co-author of the paper, in committing outright fraud". This, it is implied, is why Morris asked our ISP to ensure that either the title of our article was changed or our website disabled.
We have already dealt with the extraordinarily hypocritical nature of the attack on GM Watch in part one of our response to Propaganda, Fraud and Libel. Here we're going to deal with the question of whether our article about the research was libelous and why this study remains so controversial.
The way in which Apel's article is sequenced implies that GM Watch was a relative late-comer to this controversy - a Johnny-come-lately wading in with a gratuitously libelous article that unfairly targeted Shane Morris, forcing him to take action. But nothing could be further from the truth.
We were, in fact, the first people outside Canada to draw out the significance of the reporting of the Canadian journalist Stuart Laidlaw, who visited the farm store on several occasions during the research and observed at first hand a series of interventions by the researchers that were completely at odds with the way the research was later promoted to the scientific community.
In his book Secret Ingredients, Laidlaw reported how a sign above the GM corn on sale in the farm shop referred to "quality sweet corn", while a sign placed above the non-GM sweet corn effectively labelled it "wormy". GM Watch was the first to make a photograph of the wormy corn sign, taken by a Toronto Star photographer, available on the web.
Equally importantly, Laidlaw also reported that there were a number of pro-GM fact sheets - some authored by industry lobby groups - available to shoppers at the store without any balancing information from critics of genetic engineering. He also reported how he observed the lead researcher, Doug Powell, directly influencing a customer in favour of GM sweet corn.
What Laidlaw observed going on at the farm store convinced him that the only conclusion which could safely be drawn from the study was that, "fed a lot of pro-biotech sales pitches, shoppers could be convinced to buy GM products."
Our article drew attention to the fact that none of these "pro-biotech sales pitches" made their way into the award winning paper. When our article was published, together with the wormy corn sign, back in April 2006, it caused quite a stir, and prompted an article in New Scientist a month later.
The article reported how a leading researcher into scientific ethics had called for the British Food Journal to retract the paper - something its editor refused to do, although he was prepared to publish letters criticisng and defending the research.
The point to note is that absolutely nobody suggested at the time that our article was defamatory. Nobody asked for any element of its content, including its title, to be changed or expunged from the web. In fact, Shane Morris, while branding our article "bullsh*t", claimed to be the very first person to publish it!
Morris even claimed to have had access to the article pre-publication. This is what he wrote on his blog at the time:
Monday, April 24, 2006
Leak of Unreleased Report
This unreleased info below was given to me by folks who cannot believe the GM Watch lies and spins any longer. It was not available to the public on their [ie GM Watch's] website...
My sources have shown me the info is currently stored at
The implication of this statement, if it were to be taken at face value, is that Morris had been given information stored in a file on a third party's personal computer and not intended at that point for publication, and that he then deliberately published it. Leaving aside the legality, never mind the ethics of such an action, if this article were, as is now claimed, defamatory, why did Morris, having had pre-publication access to it, not try to prevent its publication, rather than claim to be the first to make it publicly available? Indeed, at the time of writing, the article that Morris has recently gone to such lengths to censor is still available uncensored on Morris's own blog!
Not only did Morris not make any claim of defamation, he stated unambiguously that the article did not accuse him of fraud, commenting: "He [ie the supposed author] still refuses to claim I (Shane Morris) committed fraud."
Nor when Morris first contacted us about alleged defamation did he make any reference at all to our article. His concern was said to be purely about a statement made about him in an unpublished letter to a newspaper by GM-free Ireland. Only when we had followed GM-free Ireland in amending the statement in their letter, as archived in a list bulletin on our site, did Morris then issue an entirely new demand - that we remove the title from the article we'd published over 15 months earlier. When our website was subsequently disabled while the issue was resolved, Morris then made a further demand to GM-free Ireland - that they remove **all** GM Watch material pertaining to him from their website.
Apel claims in Propaganda, Fraud and Libel that, "The company hosting the GM Watch website found that libelous statements violated its fair use policy, and when no amendments to the offensive language were forthcoming, saw no option other than to take the entire site down." Like much else in Apel's article, this is simply untrue. At no point did our web host decide that libelous statements had been made. Indeed, the administrator responsible for taking the site down specifically told Shane Morris, "I am not doing this due to accepting your claim (a matter on which I am neutral)." (e-mail of August 16 2007)
The ostensible reason given to us by Morris for originally demanding the change of title was that it had somehow misled GM-free Ireland into accusing him of fraud. This hardly stacks up given that Morris himself has previously admitted that our article did not accuse him of fraud, and given that the original title and the article would continue to be available to "mislead" people on his own blog!
Morris, of course, was not alone in not originally claiming defamation. None of his three co-authors, all of whom were identified in the article, have in the intervening months ever demanded any kind of retraction. But Apel's article implies that Shane Morris and his lawyers saw his reputation as having suffered a particularly unjustified attack in that "the hand-written 'wormy' sweet corn signs had gone up and come down before Morris was in Canada, before he was employed at the University of Guelph, and before the data were gathered."
While the pressence or not of Morris at the farm store is largely irrelevant in terms of the criticisms of the paper presented in our original article (those criticisms not being in any way specific to Morris), we do believe that no convincing evidence has been produced to support the claims about the sign coming down early in the study and - in part 3 of our response - we will turn to this aspect of the controversy, as well as to the contentious issue of Morris's simultaneous role as both pro-GM lobbyist and Canadian government bureaucrat.