Westminster's pro-GM push

January 2013

Picture from Wiki Commons
In the summer of 2012, the Westminster government appointed pro-GM MP, Owen Paterson, as Environment Secretary. This was accompanied by a low key consultation about new “agri-tech” measures to increase the efficiency of British farms. Options considered included, of course, the introduction of GM crops. The formal ministerial response is due in 2013, but mysterious “insiders” have hinted that the likely outcome will be to promote increased use of GM technology.

At the end of the year, a high-pressure media campaign seemed to spring from nowhere (see A FAIRY TALE FOR CHRISTMAS - December 2012). No one actually said anything that hasn't been said a thousand times before before, but comments on GM made by Owen Paterson inexplicably became 'news', as did another call for a debate on GM by Scottish MP Murdo Fraser.

What clever PR turned these hackneyed comments on GM into major headlines?


In January 2013, Owen Paterson gave a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference - an important annual platform for debate in agriculture. The reason for the earlier news-that-wasn't became clear: it was put in place to prepare the ground for the next stage in the UK government's GM push.

The press-coverage of Paterson's speech was spectacular. For example...


(It's noteworthy that the last article seems to be the only one which blatantly referred to the government tactics as “A PR campaign to change the image of genetically modified food”, and connected the dots between the December non-news splash and the January one.)

Then the story gets really interesting. Owen Paterson's speech at the Oxford Farming Conference covered a wide range of important topical issues. The bit about GM consisted of no more than two brief paragraphs in the middle of his 58-paragraph delivery: one defined the problem as britain's failure to follow the GM pack; the second defined the solution as a PR campaign to persuade the public.

Excerpt from Owen Paterson's speech at the Oxford Farming Conference
"... When we're talking about innovation, we should also consider GM. In 2011, 16 million farmers in 29 countries grew GM products on 160 million hectares. That's 11 per cent of the world's arable land. To put it in context that's 6 times larger than the surface area of the UK.
I fully appreciate the strong feelings on both sides of the debate. GM needs to be considered in its proper overall context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits. We should not, however, be afraid of making the case to the public about the potential benefits of GM beyond the food chain, for example, significantly reducing the use of pesticides and inputs such as diesel. As well as making the case at home, we also need to go through the rigorous processes that the EU has in place to ensure the safety of GM crops. I believe that GM offers great opportunities but I also recognise that we owe a duty to the public to reassure them that it is a safe and beneficial innovation...."
What clever PR was going on behind the scenes to induce the newspapers to turn these few, buried, words into major headlines?

And the story doesn't end there. The next day, the Guardian kept the ball rolling with the headlines:

"Washout summer and flooded autumn have persuaded an increasing number of farmers to start using the technology."

*Note When it was pointed out that these words clearly suggest that some farmers in Britain are already using GM crops and that more of them will now do so, which is totally untrue, the headlines were amended to:
Bad weather prompting more British farmers to favour GM use -
Washout summer and flooded autumn have persuaded an increasing number of farmers to back use of the technology”

Most Guardian readers will, however, already have read the original, misleading version before it was changed, and their understanding of the article will have been altered by the expectation aroused by the headline.

In fact, when you read the article, the 'more' British farmers whose views have made the headlines become an unspecified number of 'many individual' farmers, and we never do find out how many they're more of. Even in its amended form, the headlines suggest a major shift in farmer opinion which is then only supported by two quotes from 'individual' farmers.

What clever PR induced a respected national newspaper to print such a misleading headline?

OUR COMMENT

There's some unaccountably bad journalism going on here, and the editors seem to be asleep at the wheel. Either the UK press has lost the plot, or someone with a lot of clout is pulling their strings.

Watch out for media push No.3 of the UK Government's GM campaign to change the image of GM: it won't be far behind, and next time round you'll recognise it. If you see any of the above tricks ('news' which clearly isn't, cherry-picking out GM aspects to create 'news', misleading or unsupported headlines, or any other novel rats you smell) drop an e-mail to the Editor and complain.

To paraphrase one commentator on the Daily Mail article: it is absolutely nobody’s job to make you eat GM.

SOURCES
  • Environment Secretary Owen Paterson addresses the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference, DEFRA News 3.01.13, www.defra.gov.uk
  • Louise Gray, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson tells farmers to push GM, Telegraph, 3.01.13
  • Fiona Harvey, GM food: British public 'should be persuaded of the benefits', Guardian, 3.01.13
  • Julia Glotz, Don't be afraid to make case for GM, Paterson tells farmers, The Grocer, 3.01.13
  • Whitney McFerron, U.K..'s Paterson Says GM Crops Represent an Opportunity, 2.01.13
  • Matt Chorley, Ministers launch PR drive to shake off 'Frankenstein food' image of GM crops, Daily Mail, 3.01.13
  • Fiona Harvey and Rebecca Smithers, Bad weather prompting more British farmers to favour (or 'consider', depending on the date) GM use, Guardian, 4.01.13

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