Denials and diversions, but deeds remain
Frantic Government damage control followed the release last week of my book Seeds of Distrust. We were told the book was completely untrue and that I was a conspiracy theorist taking part in a Green Party dirty trick.
A series of Government and industry spokespeople appeared in the news dismissing the book.
So fierce were the Government denials that, I admit, I wondered if I had missed something crucial. The book is based solidly on official papers and interviews with insiders, but ministers waved papers in the air that they said would prove me wrong.
It is interesting, a week later, to study the four elements of the Government’s response: Diversions, promised facts contradicting the book, statements by supposedly independent experts and, late on Friday, the release of documents.
The first three tactics were, in effect, continuations of the original cover-up, but fortunately the release of documents gives the public a chance to judge for themselves the story told in the book.
For the first three days, most of the damage control took the form of diversions. There was much news about how incandescently angry Helen Clark was, the rights and wrongs of TV3 “ambushing” the Prime Minister, and her allegation that my book was a Green Party trick.
For the record: No one in the Greens (or any other party) had any input at any stage into my book. I do my own work.
The book raises serious issues, but it suited the Government to propose its own conspiracy theory. In every interview I had to answer “have you stopped beating your wife”-type questions about the Green Party plot.
Next, the Government promised to produce evidence disproving the book. Several ministers and officials spoke of “follow-up” GM tests that showed the sweetcorn crops were not contaminated after all.
This was when I seriously wondered if I had got it wrong. Then, at 5pm last Friday, the head of the Environmental Risk Management Authority, Bas Walker, contradicted both his earlier statements and the ministers’. He said there had been no extra tests done after he had advised Marian Hobbs on November 24, 2000, of “several positive tests for contamination which can hardly be ignored”.
Surprisingly, many news organisations did not report that the widely reported claims of extra tests had been wrong.
The other element of the damage control at this time was “independent” scientists supporting the Government. This is a standard PR tactic by which, if your public credibility is in doubt, seemingly independent third-party endorsements are found to back you up.
The most prominent of them was Dr Russell Poulter, who first appeared on Linda Clark’s Nine to Noon radio programme. At the start of the interview, Poulter assured her he was independent. Then, as the interview went on, it became clear he had been at the secret meetings in 2000 at which the advice to the Government about the sweetcorn crops was devised.
The record of a Government-industry meeting on December 1, 2000, released by the Government last week, explains Poulter’s role in the crisis. He was brought to the meeting by Heinz Wattie (a company which had planted part of the GM-contaminated seed batch) to dispute the evidence of contamination.
The record of the meeting says Poulter argued that the laboratories that had got positive GM results were “unreliable and no credence can be placed on them”. The Government scientist recording the meeting described Poulter’s “summary dismissal” as “cavalier”.
Most important, the meeting record says that Heinz Wattie wanted “to use his opinion to revisit the issue of what should happen to the crop already in the ground”. In other words, Poulter was appearing for one of the companies to argue against the (up until then) Government plan to pull out the contaminated crops.
It is extraordinary that such an obviously non-independent person was the main “independent expert” reported pooh-poohing my book in last week’s news. It is a reminder to be cautious about apparently independent experts who pop up presenting versions of science helpful to commercial interests.
Despite its earlier claims, the Government produced no evidence to contradict the book. I am confident the story is solid.
Fortunately, the fourth part of the damage control involved the release of a pile of official papers. Releasing papers on a Friday night ensured that few journalists read them (thus the minimal news coverage). But anyone who does read the papers will have no doubt that seriously undemocratic processes were at work.
The papers include advice from the Melbourne GM lab which says: “Consequently, one may draw the conclusion that samples received at GeneScan Australia from Novartis Seeds do contain trace-contaminating levels of Bt11 [GM sweetcorn].”
They show the industry people and their PR advisers helping to rewrite policies to redefine the scientific results to justify ignoring crops which, until then, all the officials accepted were contaminated.
They show an industry PR adviser recommending burying news about the crops within a routine-sounding Marian Hobbs press release about testing seed imports (which is what later happened).
I wrote a book about the contaminated crops as a case study to raise issues about how controversial decisions are really made.
The inside view is fascinating and worrying. The instant reaction of the Government when it was informed about the contaminated crops was secrecy, which served to shut the public and any alternative sources of advice out of the decision-making. In contrast, the big companies involved were given a huge influence over the options and advice presented to Government, highlighting the way that business-friendly government can be undemocratic government.
Most Cabinet ministers were misled, the public was misled and even the royal commission – which was investigating genetic modification at that time – was misled.
These are not idle claims. They are all backed up by official documents quoted and reproduced in the book.
But instead of having to answer these allegations, the Government diverted attention to attacks on the Greens, TV3 and me.
Understanding and publicising what went wrong over the sweetcorn crops, and why it went wrong, will hopefully help to ensure we get better and more open decisions the next time something goes wrong.
Tags: genetic engineering