1 June 2002

BBC refuses to drop 'alarmist' GM drama despite protests

By Tom Leonard, Media Editor

The BBC refused to withdraw a drama about genetically modified crops yesterday despite a barrage of criticism from scientists, including the programme's scientific adviser.

Fields of Gold, a two-part thriller starring Anna Friel, purports to show a possible scenario in which a GM-created superbug kills elderly people and wildlife, and ultimately threatens the world.

But Mark Tester, a GM crop expert who advised the programme makers, said they had ignored his criticisms and produced a drama riddled with "ridiculous errors of fact to inflame uninformed anti-GM hysteria".

His comments were echoed by some of the country's most eminent scientists. Lord May, the president of the Royal Society, described it as a "ludicrous piece of alarmist science fiction" and a "disgrace".

The BBC would be "abdicating its responsibility to its viewers by broadcasting this error-strewn piece of propaganda", he said.

Issue-based television drama is often accused of playing fast and loose with the facts but rarely has it attracted the scale of criticism that has rained down on Fields of Gold.

The BBC insisted, however, that it would be showing the drama as planned next weekend without any changes.

Although a spokesman said viewers were intelligent enough to know the difference between a drama and a documentary, she attempted to justify the programme's scientific premise on the grounds that it was a "very grey area of debate".

"It's a subject of considerable debate within the scientific community. There's no definite outcome because anti-GM campaigners say that at the end of the day we don't know anything about it."

The BBC claimed that Mr Tester, a Cambridge University researcher, had advised the programme makers last July that an outbreak of VRSA, the disease in the drama, was "unlikely but by no means impossible".

Fields of Gold was written by Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, and Ronan Bennett. The Guardian has been accused of sensationalising the issues surrounding GM foods.

In 1998, it triggered a worldwide scare on the health effects of GM potatoes after publishing a report on work by Dr Arpad Pusztai which was later found to be scientifically flawed.

Bennett is a Republican sympathiser whose previous BBC drama about Irish history, Rebel Heart, was attacked for being one-sided. He is currently writing a drama based on the events of September 11.

The BBC will be encouraging viewers of Fields of Gold who are interested in the issues to watch a related documentary series, Bitter Harvest, which will be shown later in the month on BBC2.

Despite its title, a spokesman said the three-part series would present a "very balanced argument."