18 June 2002

'Fields of Gold': Science fiction

The Science Media Centre was accused of ugly tactics by The Guardian's Alan Rusbridger when it criticised his anti-GM TV drama, 'Fields of Gold'. The centre's director, Fiona Fox, was not impressed.

It's a fairly safe bet that if the authors of Fields of Gold, the drama about GM crops screened
on BBC 1, are asked to produce a sequel to their "conspiracy thriller", they will write in a new
role for a sinister, biotech-funded media centre. The real-life Science Media Centre (SMC) found itself cast in its own conspiracy by the drama's authors – Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, and his co-author and Guardian colleague Ronan Bennett – after a row about the plausibility of the science in the anti-GM storyline. In a series of newspaper articles and
television interviews, the writers described the new SMC as a "lobby group" for big biotech
companies, and accused the centre of orchestrating an ugly, secret campaign to discredit the programme and "dump on" The Guardian and the BBC.

The truth about the SMC and its role in this story is less sinister. Having offered the centre's services to scientists looking to promote "research, voices and opinions on to the news agenda", we were approached for advice on the drama. Among those concerned was Mark Tester, the Cambridge University scientist who had acted as an adviser to the programme-makers (ironically, recommended to the BBC by The Guardian).

Tester believed that the BBC had ignored his advice in favour of a sensationalist storyline.
While he admits that, like all good scientists, he will never entirely rule out any theoretical
possibilities, he insists that he urged programme-makers not to run the plot of an antibiotic-resistance gene being transmitted more than once from crops to animals to people with
devastating effects.

The centre's initial response was to urge caution on the basis that the drama was a piece of
fiction and therefore not bound by the same rules as documentary. However, Tester and other scientists had been asked by the BBC to take part in a web debate on the issues raised in the drama and understood that the BBC were keen to use the publicity around the programme to promote a wider public discussion about GM. As Mark Tester said, "the alarm bells went off when I was called by someone at the BBC who said the drama would 'show the GM conspiracy as it really is'".

In the event, the scientists' concerns were proved right as big-name actors including Anna
Friel and Max Beesley used promotional interviews to suggest that for them, it was more than purely fiction. Beesley, who played the heroic anti-GM farmer, told the Express: "I've learned a lot more about GM foods from doing it and the programme has been very brave. People are going to think it's sensationalism because it is television, but I think that it's very close to what actually goes on." Pre-publicity on the BBC website declared one of the aims of the drama as "tapping into a very real fear, to make people think about what they eat", and Alan Rusbridger declared that Fields of Gold, "will – if it succeeds – engage a mass audience and make them question the issues behind it".

The scientists' real concern was that, if unchallenged, the drama and publicity around it could generate another round of anti-GM headlines which would further entrench public opposition at a crucial time in the debate over GM. The Science Media Centre, with its brief to help ensure that the public gets access to all sides of the debate about controversial issues by helping scientists to engage with the media, agreed to help. It was felt that our concern about the potential for the story to develop into an unsavoury media row, did not seem to be a good justification to turn away scientists whose only aim was to ensure that the viewing public be made aware that this GM drama was science fiction not science fact.

After a screening with a small group of respected scientists working on GM, the centre gathered a collection of their reactions into a press statement and suggested that Mark Tester write a 1,000-word opinion piece, which the centre would help place.

The allegation made repeatedly by the authors of Fields of Gold that the Science Media Centre "touted" these scientific criticisms around with an e-mail saying "This is a terrific story for anyone wanting to dump on the BBC and Guardian" is a piece of fiction worthy only of a conspiracy thriller. The only e-mail bearing any slim resemblance to the one described was sent by us exclusively to The Guardian.

This real-life e-mail proves only that the centre was keen to persuade The Guardian into taking the piece by Mark Tester by suggesting that if they declined there would doubtless be others only too willing to "have a pop at The Guardian and BBC in one go". That is drastically different from us urging others to "dump on The Guardian", as Rusbridger alleged. Ironically, the SMC came in for criticism from journalists on other papers (including this one) for not offering the story more widely.

While not denying that the SMC is funded by some bio-tech companies and accepting that
science-based companies have an obvious interest in supporting a centre set up to ensure a more balanced media debate about scientific issues, the charge that this makes the centre a "lobby group" for biotech companies also blurs the line between fact and fiction. The SMC was set up in response to a recommendation in the influential House of Lords report on Science and Society, calling for new initiatives to improve relations between science and the media. The Advisory Council that established the centre was chaired by Lord Melvyn Bragg and included representatives of some of the UK's leading scientific institutions, including the Royal Society, Royal Institution and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

It was this Advisory Council that agreed early on that while funding should be sought from industry as well as scientific bodies, any undue influence should be limited by capping contributions at 5 per cent of the centre's running costs. In effect, the biotech and drug companies mentioned by those criticising the centre have as little influence on the SMC's day-to-day workings as the list of non-industry funders that they neglect to mention – including the Royal College of Physicians, the EPSRC, the Science Council and others.

On these pages a few weeks ago, the BBC's science correspondent Pallab Ghosh spoke for many journalists when he called on scientists to start engaging in the debates about controversial issues like BSE and GM rather than "retreating into a state of injured frustration like a petulant footballer who has been wrongly booked". That a group of scientists anticipated this debate and engaged with it should be welcomed as sign of a new willingness by scientists to work with the media. The fact the scientists were uncharacteristically on the front foot – a place usually reserved for media-savvy protest groups – seems to do more to explain the angry response then any hard evidence of a biotech-driven conspiracy.