Rotten to the Corp - corrupt politics and science (4/3/2004)

With a British Government announcement on GM crop commercialisation now expected next week, here's an article on some of the elements involved in driving the decision forward.

It looks, in particular, at the the role of the lobby group Sense About Science (Chairman: Lord Taverne), and warns that if the go-ahead is given, it won't be the first time a critical political decison affecting the biotech industry has been effectively hijacked by a coordinated campaign involving dubious lobbyists and big business.

Rotten to the corp
Science in Society 21, Spring 2003
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An expose of biotech's new corporate warriors who promote their agenda by infiltrating the science-media establishment and by using smear tactics borrowed from America's far-right.  By Claire Robinson and Jonathan Matthews

Things looked bleak for biotech in Britain by the end of October 2003. The "GM Nation" public debate had ended with almost nobody wanting GM food, and the newly published GM crop trial results said they were generally bad for wildlife. Media reports on GM were overwhelmingly downbeat. Then something happened to shift the tone.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was sent a letter from 114 scientists, complaining about the lack of government support for GM during the debate. Initial media reports said the letter was the work of Professor Derek Burke, who once chaired the Advisory Committee on Novel Foods and Processes. But in later reports, but it soon emerged that a lobby group called Sense About Science (SAS) was behind it.

The letter attracted considerable media coverage. The Times reported, "More than 100 leading scientists have made a once-in-a-generation appeal to Tony Blair to save British science." Questions demanding to know Blair's reply followed in both Houses of Parliament. In response, Blair was at pains to emphasise that he had not ruled out GM crop commercialisation in Britain. He stressed his govemment's support for biotechnology and his recognition of its economic value.

Even before Blair's reassuring reply, one of the letter's signatories, Prof. Chris Leaver, noted the success of the strategy. He told the Times Higher Education Supplement that the letter had created "some unease about the state of the debate and whether we have the full picture." According to Leaver, "The letter seems to have succeeded in shaking the creeping view - especially in government - that 'we probably have to let the campaigners have this one' and hope that things might change in years to come."

The episode marked a victory for the biotech industry - and for SAS. The lobby group had distracted the media and the government from arguments the biotech industry cannot win - that GM is unpopular and risky - and had successfully equated support for GM with support for British science.

It was the latest move in a carefully crafted campaign to spearhead the commercialisation of GM from within the very heart of the UK's science establishment. And the strategies being used - some of them new to Britain - are as dishonest as they are dirty.

A fortnight earlier, on the eve of the publication of the govemment's GM crop trial results, an article appeared in The Times under the headline "GM vandals force science firms to reduce research". The article, based on a SAS survey, quoted SAS director Tracey Brown as saying, "The burden of trying to organise the research community to pre-empt and protect from vandalism is potentially disastrous."

Articles in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and elsewhere went further, suggesting that the GM public debate had been "hijacked" by "activists" - an idea repeated in the coverage of SAS's letter to Blair. They also claimed that scientists who support GM were being subjected to a campaign of physical and mental abuse, leading some to leave the country for jobs abroad. One THES article headlined, "Scientists quit UK amid GM attacks", named two scientists said to have suffered such intimidation. One was - again - Chris Leaver, a SAS trustee. The other was Mike Wilson, a SAS advisory panelist.

Another THES article - "GM debate cut down by threats and abuse" - sounded a more sinister note. It spoke of "the increasingly violent anti-GM lobby", "growing levels of physical and mental intimidation", "hardcore tactics of protesters", "intimidation by anti-GM lobbyists... mirroring animal-rights activism", "increasingly vicious protests", "a baying mob of anti-GM activists", and "a string of personal threats". It called for "the government to intervene to protect researchers." However, this article, like the others, failed to cite a single instance of a researcher being assaulted or anything similar. Indeed, the only specific threat of any seriousness cited was a bomb hoax in 1998.

The irony is, of course, that victimisation is predominantly suffered by those scientists brave enough to publish findings unfavourable to the biotech industry or to criticize it (see "Biotech critic denied tenure", for the latest punishment meted out by the pro-biotech scientific establishment). What better way to deflect attention from these shameful events than to reverse the roles of victim and attacker in the public mind?

The same tactic was used again a month later in an article in The Times, by SAS chairman Lord Taveme, headlined, "When crops burn, the truth goes up in smoke". Taverne spoke of farmers and researchers being "terrorised" and of "anti-GM campaigners" adopting "the tactics of animal welfare terrorists". Again, no examples were given, other than the bomb hoax five years earlier. Taverne wrote, "The anti-GM campaign has become a crusade. Its champions... have become ecofundamentalists, followers of a new kind of religion... But when campaigns become crusades, crusaders are more likely to turn to violence."

The attempt to portray anti-GM activists as terrorists is no spur-of-the-moment inspiration on the part of Taverne and his team. It is a carefully calculated tactic borrowed from America's pro-corporate 'Wise Use' movement - the brainchild of Ron Arnold, executive vice president of the Centre for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Founding funders include logging firms, oil company Exxon and biotech giant DuPont.

Wise Use has long used the terrorist label to marginalize and discredit environmental campaigners. In some cases this scapegoating has sparked violent attacks on environmentalists. In an effort to buttress the govemment's resolve to commercialise GM crops, SAS appears to have been systematically employing Arnold's strategy. The aim is to encourage the government to stand up to those criticising GM crops by painting them as dangerous extremists.

Though Wise Use tactics have never before gained a foothold in the UK, it's not from want of trying. Wise Users were featured as environmental experts in the Channel 4 TV series 'Against Nature', which represented environmentalists as Nazis responsible for death and deprivation in the Third World.

Subsequent investigations revealed that there was more to Against Nature than met the eye. Some of the programme makers and several key contributors had been closely involved with a magazine called LM. In March 1998, LM ran an article by Wise User Ron Arnold, which claimed that the Unabomber was an environmentalist and that therefore all environmentalists were terrorists. Arnold has written, 'This is a war zone. Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement."

LM began life in 1987 as Living Marxism, the monthly review of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The RCP started out as a far-left Trotskyist splinter group. In the early 90s, however, it underwent a drastic ideological transformation. Its leaders turned their back on seeking mass working-class action.

The real contradiction in society lay, they seemed to argue, was between those who believed in the increased human domination of nature and those who did not. They declared a total war of ideas on those they saw as the enemies of human progress. The RCP's new vision, which championed "progress" by opposing all restrictions on science, technology (especially biotechnology) and business, bore startling resemblances to that of the libertarian far-right.

While intellectually the RCP was singing from the same hymn sheet as the far-right, tactically it drew on elements on the far-left, such as "entryism" - infiltrating an organisation to influence its direction. To forward its war of ideas, the RCP initiated a new style of entryism. Suddenly its members were sharp-suited and organising seminars. By the mid 90s, Living Marxism had become the innocuous sounding LM, while the RCP had been formally liquidated.

LM's drastic swing to the right was reflected in the career of the ideological "Godfather" of the LM network and star of Against Nature, the sociologist Frank Furedi. In recent years, Furedi has written for the Centre for Policy Studies (founded by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher) and contacted the big supermarket chains, offering, for GBP7,500, to educate their customers "about complex scientific issues". This once-fervent Trotskyist was now to be found defending Monsanto in the pages of The Wall Street Journal.

Invasion of the lobby snatchers

RCP/LM's entryism hasn't just been confined to the media. They also appear to have deliberately targeted influential science lobby groups. Indeed, we can reveal that one such entryist coup may have been instrumental in landing us with GM crops.

In July 1997, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) turned up at the parliament building in Strasbourg to vote on a law to allow patents on life. The Life Patent Directive was unpopular with the public and politicians. Only two years earlier, MEPs had vetoed the directive, and they were expected to do the same again.

As the MEPs approached Parliament, they were confronted by wheelchair-bound protestors in an event organised by the lobby group Genetic Interest Group (GIG). GIG director Alistair Kent had rallied protestors suffering hereditary diseases by claiming that they were about to be denied the change of a cure if MEPs did not vote for the Life Patent Directive. This time, the law passed. GlG's lobbying is widely credited as having been decisive in its approval.

GlG's action attracted complaints from the very patient interest groups it was supposed to represent. The groups pointed out that GlG's policy had always been against gene patenting. Alistair Kent issued a letter restating the anti-patents-on-life views of the group, which were officially unchanged. So how did he come to behave in such a contrary fashion?

Commentators noted that GlG's lobbying had been part-funded by SmithKline Beecham, a company lobbying aggressively for the Directive. But there may have been another factor besides money - GlG's policy officer, John Gillott. Throughout the Patents on Life controversy, Gillott was running a guerrilla campaign against the very people who should have been GlG's closest allies - environmentalists. And his message board was LM, of which he was science editor. "The Directive has been vigorously opposed," Gillott noted in an article in LM, "by environmental campaigners who say it is an aspect of the 'race to commodify life' which amounts to 'biopiracy'." Gillott dismissed such views as "rubbish peddled by the environmentalists".

Gillott was a key contributor to Against Nature, as was another LM contributor, Juliet Tizzard, director of science lobby group, the Progress Educational Trust, which supports embryo cloning and opposes all restrictions on genetic technologies.

While LM ceased publication in 2000, its spirit lives on in its off-shoots, the think-tank The Institute of Ideas (lol) and the website Spiked. Both were founded by LM's former co-publishers.

LM-ers are increasingly heard in media debates on contentious issues such as GM crops, climate change and the MMR vaccine. They are well represented too in the lobby group Sense About Science.

The phone number for Sense About Science is the same as that for the 'publishing house' Global Futures. The only publication on the Global Futures website is by Frank Furedi. SAS assistant director Ellen Raphael is the contact person for Global Futures. Like SAS director Tracey Brown, Raphael studied under Furedi at the University of Kent and then went on to work for the PR firm Regester Larkin, which has leading biotechnology firms among its clients. LM's health writer, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, is a trustee of Global Futures and Sense About Science. Like Fitzpatrick, Brown and Raphael have also contributed to LM as well as to the lol and Spiked.

SAS's Working Party on peer review is expected to be used as a vehicle for attacking the research of Dr Arpad Pusztai, which proved highly unfavourable to the biotech industry. Its members, in addition to leading Fellows of the Royal Society, include Fiona Fox (sister of lol director Claire Fox) and Tony Gilland (lol science and society director). Fiona Fox and Gilland were both contributors to LM.

Who are the real terrorists?

Some of LM's most controversial articles sought to excuse or deny acts of horrific violence. In fact, the magazine was finally sued out of existence after an article falsely accused journalists working for news broadcaster ITN of fabricating evidence of war crimes in Bosnia. One notorious LM article denying the Rwandan genocide, which won the condemnation of the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center, among others, was written by SAS Working Party member Fiona Fox. Other articles by Fox provided a platform for those opposing the peaoe process in Northern Ireland. She also memorably described convicted IRA terrorists as "prisoners of war".

So there is an Orwellian irony about SAS chair Lord Taverne's fulminations against "eco-fundamentalists" supposedly adopting "the tactics of animal welfare terrorists", while his staff and co-members of the SAS Working Party are part of a network which has refused to condemn terrorist atrocities and sought to deny genocide and horrific war crimes.

Apart from her role in SAS, Fox is also director of the Science Media Centre (SMC), the PR body set up in 2001 by Baroness Susan Greenfield, which operates out of the Royal Institution. An article co-authored by Greenfield in The Independent gives a clear idea of the motivation behind the SMC: "What inflicted the greatest damage on GM science was that the case for the defence was fronted by the biotech groups Monsanto and AstraZeneca."

While the SMC claims independence, its funders with biotech interests include AstraZeneca, Dupont, Pfizer and Powderject. SAS's funders include the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, Amersham Biosciences plc, BP, GlaxoSmithKline, biotech industry body ISAAA, the John Innes Centre (which has benefited from multi-million pound investments from GM corporations), the related John Innes Trust, Mr M. Livermore (a PR consultant on biotech who fommerly worked for DuPont), and biopharmaceutical company Oxford GlycoSciences plc.

Why does the Science Media Centre have as its director someone whose joumalism has been described as "shoddy" and an "affront to the truth"? More broadly, why has the UK's science establishment allowed itself to be infiltrated by a group termed in a recent Guardian newspaper article as "a bizarre and cultish political network"?

The answer may lie in the Consultation Report on the SMC. The report quotes SAS chairman Lord Taverne as arguing "that the SMC should try to identify spokespeople who could display the same levels of passion and conviction as the campaigning NGOs." If you want passion and conviction but dare not risk including compassion for people and the environment, where better to look than an unaccountable extremist clique who compare environmentalists to Nazis, oppose restrictions on almost anything, no matter how harmful, and eulogise cloning and GM crops?

The desperate collaboration of the biotech lobby with this brigade of corporate warriors reveals it to be morally bankrupt - and rotten to the core.

Information in this article was drawn from the new GM WATCH directory of biotech promoters at http://www.gmwatch.org, which covers the manipulation of the GM debate in a global context. References and sources can be found in the directory. See a referenced version of George Monbiot's article "Invasion of the Entryists" at www.monbiot.com. This article was written to coincide with the launch of the GM WATCH directory.  

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