The media-control initiative triggered by concerns over coverage of the Pusztai affair, and involving the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), the Royal Society, Lord Sainsbury etc., took a major step forward when the SIRC's media Guidelines on science reporting were formally endorsed by Lord Wakeham, Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, himself a member of the SIRC group that drew up the Guidelines.
In the Press Complaints Commission's review of 2000 we were told, "...SIRC produced a number of guidelines for newspapers and practitioners about this matter, which were welcomed at the time of their publication by Lord Wakeham. He said: 'Central to the newspaper and magazine Code of Practice is the issue of accuracy in reporting. Under that Code, publications must take care to be accurate - and also ensure they differentiate clearly between comment, conjecture and fact. The publication of SIRC's Guidelines underlines the importance of those rules in regard to reporting of scientific and medical stories. I welcome them as a constructive and positive contribution in this crucial area.' "
That there was something very peculiar about all this had already been recognised in an Economic and Social Research Council Report on science and the media, "Who's Misunderstanding Whom?" in which the authors noted, "It is not difficult to quarrel with such remedies. In the first place, they ignore the fact that the Press Complaints Commission guidelines already state that "newspapers and periodicals must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material", raising the question of why this general industry code is felt to be so ineffective in the case of science. There are no obvious grounds for thinking that scientists should be able to expect any greater protection from the media's inadequacies than any other group. More fundamentally still, an injunction to factual accuracy evades the point that on subjects of the highest controversy, such as genetically modified food, key facts are themselves at issue."
The real reason for the drive for special media guidelines was perfectly encapsulated by Lord Bragg, President of the New Science Media Centre supported by Lord Sainsbury and a gaggle of pro-GM bigwigs including SIRC advisor Prof Susan Greenfield, when during a House of Lords debate bearing upon the PCC's endorsement of the guidelines he noted:
"Of course, this issue has an economic dimension which is of crucial importance... There is the sniff of the born-again Luddite in the air,and that could be destructive to our future as a trading country"
Financial self-interest can sometimes make for remarkable double standards.
As we've previously reported, one of the most prominent acknowledged funding sources of the SIRC, the self-appointed champion of accuracy in science communication, is an industry organisation known to have sought to pay academics substantial sums to support an anonymous attack on a critical report by the World Health Organisation.
SIRC supporters Baronness Greenfield and Sir John Krebs only just escaped being pulled into the controversy over the SIRC's funding by refusing to talk to camera after a director of the SIRC stated that the Chairman of the UK's supposed consumer watchdog, the Food Standards Agency, had collaborated with the SIRC while fully aware of their food industry funding.
Now the PCC Chairman's own role in relation to an issue not unconnected with accurate "reporting" is hitting the headlines. As the article below makes clear, Lord Wakeham has become embroiled in the Enron scandal as a result of his role as "a member of Enron's audit and compliance committee, which was supposed to scrutinise the complex transactions between the giant energy trading company and two partnerships... that are the central focus of the criminal investigation into Enron's spectacular collapse as it is alleged they allowed the corporation to hide millions of pounds in losses and keep investors in the dark about the state of the company's profits." A formal complaint about Wakeham made to the Institute of Chartered Accountants of which Wakeham is a member could threaten a number of lucrative company directorships.
Another member of the SIRC group that drew up the guidelines has also been touched by financial scandal. SIRCus girl Professor Sheila McLean, Director of the Institute of Law and Ethics in Medicine at Glasgow University made the front page of a Glasgow daily last year over allegations of dubious ethics involving claims for substantial extra payments she'd allegedly made for meetings that, the newspaper said, McLean was already being paid to attend.
For more on what lies behind the media-control initiative:
Bad Company: reporting the business of science
The New Thought Police
BMJ critique of SIRC media initiative
Wakeham faces British inquiry into Enron role
Antony Barnett and Ed Vulliamy in New York
Sunday January 27, 2002
Lord Wakeham, the former Tory Energy Secretary who now chairs of the Press Complaints Commission, faces the humiliating prospect of a British inquiry into his role in the Enron scandal.
This could result in him being heavily fined and stripped of his professional qualifications. He could also lose lucrative directorships with four other companies.
Wakeham, who was an Enron director, has already been summoned to appear before a Senate committee to explain his role in the [pounds]55 billion collapse, the largest in US corporate history, which has threatened to engulf the Bush administration. Wakeham was a key member of Enron's board audit committee, which was supposed to prevent any financial wrongdoing and protect shareholders' interests.
Last night America's main trade union organisation, the AFL-CIO, which represents thousands of Enron workers who lost their jobs and saw the value of their pensions crumble, said it intended to launch a formal complaint about Wakeham to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.
Wakeham, who qualified as a chartered accountant before becoming a minister in Margaret Thatcher's governments, would then face an investigation by the institution's professional conduct committee into whether he had acted competently as a non-executive director of Enron. If Wakeham was found to have 'performed his work inefficiently or incompetently' he could face a range of penalties from being struck off to a fine.
A spokesman for the institute said he could not comment on any individual cases, but confirmed that, if a complaint about Wakeham was received, the institute would have a duty to begin a formal investigation.
The AFL-CIO, which represents 13 million workers in the US, has also written to the chairmen of four companies where Wakeham is a director asking them to sack him from their boards.
Wakeham is a director of Bristol & West building society (now owned by the Bank of Ireland), Michael Page International recruitment consultants, shipbuilder Vosper Thorneycroft and investment bank Rothschilds.
The letters, which were sent out on Friday addressed to the chairman of each company, state: 'As you are most likely aware, Lord Wakeham is a director of Enron Corporation. We are writing to ask that in light of Lord Wakeham's role at Enron, the board of directors not nominate him to another term as director, unless Lord Wakeham can show he personally took meaningful steps to protect Enron investors.'
Damon Silvers, the legal adviser at the AFL-CIO, said: 'Lord Wakeham has a lot of questions to answer. We believe he was one of a number of key directors who bear particular responsibility for the Enron collapse. He was a qualified accountant who was on the audit committee and if he was doing his job competently then this scandal might never have happened.'
Wakeham has so far refused to comment publicly about his Enron role and did not respond to any phone calls yesterday.
Wakeham was known as Thatcher's 'Mr Fix-It'. As Energy Secretary in 1990 he helped privatise the UK electricity industry and gave consent for Enron to build Britain's largest private power plant on Teesside.
Since 1994 Wakeham has been a non-executive board director of Enron, earning more than [pounds]80,000 a year from the company. As well as his director's salary he was paid an additional fee for consultancy work and owned thousands of shares in the corporation.
Most crucially, Wakeham was a member of Enron's audit and compliance committee, which was supposed to scrutinise the complex transactions between the giant energy trading company and two partnerships set up by its chief financial officer, Andrew Fastow.
It is these two partnerships that are the central focus of the criminal investigation into Enron's spectacular collapse as it is alleged they allowed the corporation to hide millions of pounds in losses and keep investors in the dark about the state of the company's profits.