Guilty! Public misled over end of GM moratorium in NZ (26/4/2004)

A New Zealand broadcaster has been found guilty of  breaching the Broadcasting Act's requirement for accuracy and fairness during the peak of a debate about the government's decision to end the moratorium on GM releases over a debate involving Marian Hobbs, NZ's Minister for the Environment who made comments likely to mislead viewers, and designed to bolster the government's position. Hobbs' position was supported by TVNZ broadcaster Paul Holmes who has previously been in hot water for calling United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan a "Cheeky Darkie" during a rant against the UN.

TVNZ guilty - Public misled over GE Moratorium

The Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) has found TVNZ guilty of breaching the Broadcasting Act's requirement for accuracy and fairness during the peak of a debate about the government's decision to end the moratorium on GM release.

However, TVNZ has criticised the BSA's decision saying that to broadcast a summary of the decision would imply the Minister for the Environment also misled the New Zealand public.

The breach occurred during 'Holmes' October 23rd 2003 which featured a debate with Marian Hobbs, Minister for the Environment, and Jon Carapiet, from GE Free New Zealand in food and environment. The BSA upheld a complaint by Mr Carapiet that TVNZ had breached the Broadcasting Act on grounds of accuracy and fairness.

"Having examined the evidence the BSA has upheld my complaint," says Jon Carapiet. "But frankly it would have been better for this country if the truth had been heard at the time, rather than six months later."

"In my view the comments made by Paul Holmes and the Minister were indeed likely to mislead viewers, and designed to bolster the government's argument," says Mr Carapiet. "The Minister was either ill-informed or ignoring the crucial evidence that New Zealand should not release GE food or animal-feed products at this stage."

The decision to end the moratorium on GE release was the cause of the largest demonstrations seen in New Zealand for decades but at the time the government refused to extend the moratorium claiming scientific and other research backed their move.

During the 'Holmes' interview one such research report was cited as proving the government's decision was correct, and described as showing European markets were unconcerned by GE release in New Zealand.

In what appears to have been a prior agreed plan, Paul Holmes and the Minister both focussed on the report by the Otago University Business School: 'Trust and Country Image.'

"They seemed to be spinning the Report's findings along similar lines, and attacking me for pointing out the Report's actual recommendations. Mr Holmes said the study showed European importers didn't care about GM which is simply not true," Mr Carapiet says.

In referring to the Otago Report Marian Hobbs even dismissed our 'clean green image' as unimportant, claiming it was only hygiene and proper regulation that really benefited New Zealand exports.

"The Otago Report is deeply flawed and it's methodology suspect. The researchers seem to have deliberately set out to find evidence to counter claims that exports to Europe could be undermined by GE release, which is hardly an objective approach. No wonder the Minister seized upon it," says Mr Carapiet.

The Otago Report also neglected to interview consumer groups. One of its conclusions was that New Zealand's Nuclear Free policy had no relevance to customers overseas because only 3 company executives, of a total of less than 20 interviewed, were aware of the policy.

But despite any attempt to disprove concerns about GE release, the final page of the Otago Report makes a clear recommendation, which both the Minister and Paul Holmes denied during the interview:

" New Zealand should defer commercial release of GMO's ( Genetically Modified Organisms) in farm animals for meat or milk production, and for pasture and animal feed, until such time as this technology becomes widely accepted in European markets." Page 78 " Trust and Country image" The BSA found Mr Carapiet was treated unfairly when he cited this conclusion.

Fortunately despite the end of the moratorium there has been no full commercial GE release authorised in New Zealand. Though field trials have been approved New Zealand's food production is still GM-free. This protects access for our Farmers' products to Europe where new rules for full mandatory GE-food labelling have just come into force.

Most Australian states have introduced moratoria on GM food crops since New Zealand's moratorium lapsed. Overseas other regions are introducing bans on GM crops, and even after getting approval Bayer has cancelled the release of what was to be Britain's first GM crop.

"We are going in the wrong direction. It is time to reintroduce a moratorium on release," says Mr Carapiet.

"In the light of the BSA decision and the broadcast of inaccuracies that may well have misled the people of New Zealand- Minister Hobbs must be called to account."  

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