Oxitec, Syngenta, and gullible journalists
There was an article in The Observer the other week (15th July) about this lovely little company in Oxfordshire called Oxitec.
One day, the kind hearted employees of Oxitec thought that they had done so much for humanity with their GM mosquito that they contacted a fresh faced journalist called Conal Urquhart and asked him if he would like to write about their great success.
And so Conor duly did just that. In the Observer, he reported how Oxitec had released wonderful GM mosquitoes on the good folk of the Cayman Islands, who were dying in their thousands from .
He reported the extraordinary feats of one Luke Alphey, Oxitec’s chief scientific officer, who had engineered the mosquitoes to have killer sex so their offspring died and stopped dengue in its tracks.
Boys' own stuff, and Conor found it irresistible. Oxitec weren’t going to stop at the Cayman Islands, he reported, but they were going onwards and upwards to release their deadly charges in Brazil, Malaysia and who knows where else.
Now when Conal was at journalism school, he would have been taught the basics of his trade which are the; who, what, why, and when questions. Had he paid attention to his lessons, he might have asked who the people were at Oxitec who were so interested in being nice to the pleasant young man from the Observer.
If he had gone to Oxitec’s website, he would have seen that Haydn Parry, the company’s chief executive, had done time at Syngenta, a biotech giant interested in pushing products such as GM mosquitoes.
Camilla Beech, its regulatory affairs manager, also worked for Syngenta. She must be very good at her job because these mosquitoes seem to have been let out without any regulations being applied to them.
Glen Slade, its head of business development, worked on the merger which formed Syngenta. And Dr Christopher Richards, Oxitec’s chairman, worked for Syngenta and a few other big chemical companies.
Of course, this may not be evidence that Oxitec is a front for the interests of Sygenta or another big biotech company. But Conal could at least have asked. He’s obviously a polite young man.
But what was he was being asked to do in interviewing Oxitec? What was the point of his brief? Was it to try to convince readers that Oxitec had found a cure for a major killer? Well, they haven’t, and it isn’t.
Conal could have tried to find out why Oxitec thought the world needed these GM mosquitoes. But he didn’t. He could have told them that most people recover from dengue. But he didn’t do that either. Nor did he mention it in his article.
Once upon a time the Observer and for that matter the Guardian employed people who did ask difficult questions and critically analysed the answers. You know; the stuff that transforms a mere scribbler into a journalist and rag into a great newspaper.
Both seem to have forgotten that great newspapers don't do press releases for big business.