Why are so many BBC programmes one-sided when it comes to GM?
This coming Wednesday (18 September) on BBC TWO (9.00-10.00pm) Prof Brian Cox will be kicking off a new 3-part series called "Science Britannica". And he'll be asking why "when science has done so much for humanity, it sometimes gets such a bad press".
In "Frankenstein's Monsters", the first episode in the series, Cox explains among other things "how the discovery of DNA, like nuclear fission before it, has resulted in controversy, with tales of 'Frankenfoods' fuelling the public's mistrust of science".
What should really set alarm bells ringing though is that the producer and director of the series is Michael Lachmann. Remember the BBC Horizon programme that used the pin-up pig farmer Jimmy Doherty to front "Jimmy's GM Food Fight"? The producer and director of that prime time soft-sell GM advertisement was none other than Lachmann.
In that case, while supposedly investigating the science of GM foods, Lachmann had Jimmy, once a purveyor of all things natural, telling the audience how "simple" and "natural" genetic modification was. And by the end of the programme, Jimmy was even enthusing that it would be "madness to turn away from this technology. The science is absolutely amazing. It offers hope."
After viewer complaints, the BBC investigated whether the programme was biased. For ages the BBC refused to answer one viewer's persistent enquiry as to whether the programme's director was in any way related to Sir Peter Lachmann, a notoriously aggressive pro-GM scientist. Eventually his persistence paid off when the BBC finally admitted that "Sir Peter Lachmann is indeed the father of Michael".
Sir Peter Lachmann was not only at the forefront of the campaign to discredit Dr Arpad Pusztai but, according to a front page article in The Guardian, he even went so far as to threaten the editor of The Lancet over his planned publication of Pusztai's research on GM.
Towards the end of what was described as a highly aggressive phone call, Lachmann is said to have told the editor that publishing Pusztai's paper would "have implications for his personal position". Lachmann denied to The Guardian that he had threatened the editor, but he did admit making the phone call and discussing the pending publication.
The information provided by the BBC to its Editorial Standards Committee both failed to specify this particular incident and to note Lachmann's links over the years to a number of commercial companies with biotech interests that might be affected by the outcome of the GM debate.
It is, of course, the case that just because a father passionately holds certain beliefs or has particular professional interests, it doesn't automatically follow that his son shares them. But surely the BBC wouldn't put out a programme on the case for the Iraq war, for example, if it was produced and directed by the son of, say, Donald Rumsfeld or Tony Blair, without flagging up the close connection?
That consideration, however, did not influence the BBC's Editorial Standards Committee who threw out complaints that Michael Lachmann had produced an incredibly biased programme.
As a result, it seems certain that the BBC will not be drawing the public's attention to the background of the producer and director of Science Britannica. But we already have some idea of what to expect from the series as it has been reviewed on BBC Radio 4's "Saturday Review".
According to the reviewers, Lachmann's series is an "apologia for the power of science" that emphasises the need to "educate the public" in order to defend science from "popular misunderstandings". They say "Frankenstein's Monsters" aims to explain why scientists are feared and why you mustn't fear them. The reviewers also say that the series provides a very old fashioned anecdotal view of the history of science that mixes together science and its technological applications, and contains "nothing" about the politics surrounding it.
But any concern that this may turn out to be yet another prime time advertisement for GM goes beyond the question of the objectivity of Michael Lachmann. Just over a month ago the BBC's Science Club aired an entirely one-sided and inaccurate piece on Oxitec's GM mosquito project, which was promoted as exploring "how genetically modified mosquitoes are helping to fight the spread of Dengue fever and save lives", even though Oxitec are only running a trial at this stage. According to GM Freeze, the BBC " offered no critical views, acknowledged no potential drawbacks... and gave no indication of any kind that there might be any difficulties with this approach."
Then only last week the BBC broadcast another piece on GM, this time on the One Show. That piece was put together by Adam Rutherford, an enthusiastic supporter of GM crops who has dismissed most opponents as uninterested in a debate since they are just "viscerally opposed". Rutherford's piece did include some critical comments from Andy Stirling, Professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University, but as Stirling got only around 30 seconds in which to make them, it was token balance which may only have been there because of all the complaints about last month's Science Club.
If anyone thinks the BBC Trust needs to get a serious grip on this one-sided programme making, it may be worth noting that according to leaked documents from the biotech industry lobby group EuropaBio, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, showed interest in their GM ambassador programme aimed at changing the debate in Europe around GM crops.
It needs to be said that a spokeswoman at the BBC told The Guardian that although Lord Patten had been "approached about the EuropaBio outreach programme", he had made it "absolutely clear that given his position as chairman of the BBC Trust" his taking on such a role "would have been wholly inappropriate".
But what is disturbing is that Lord Patten was among only half a dozen individuals identified by EuropaBio as ideal for the role. Others on the list included Kofi Annan, who heads up AGRA which recently dismissed opposition to GM crops as "a farce", and Mark Lynas who, though he strenuously denies taking on such a role, seems to operate exactly like a GM ambassador.
Certainly, the suggestion that the Chairman of the BBC Trust would make an ideal GM ambassador would not seem to be a helpful signal to send the BBC's staff in terms of the need to avoid one-sided programme making. Of course, whether "Frankenstein's Monsters" is as one-sided as Lachmann's previous programme on GM remains to be seen. But it will be worth watching carefully and if it does turn out to be yet another prime time advertisement, then the BBC's viewers and licence payers should not hesitate to complain.