18 June 2002
'Fields of Gold': Science fiction
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.
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.
The centre's initial response
was to urge caution on the basis that the drama was a piece of
In the event, the scientists'
concerns were proved right as big-name actors including Anna
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
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.