DIGGER STILL PLAYS DIRTY
By Nick Cohen
© London Observer (July 5, 1998)
Sweet and reasonable corporate voices were muttering in all the right ears
last week. Editors were squared in private meetings and politicians
lobbied at hearings in the House of Lords. Advertising agencies followed
up the charming of opinion-formers with a #1 million campaign to convince
the nation that genetically-engineered food presented no threat whatsoever
to public health.
At first sight, the persuaders from the American biotechnology
conglomerate, Monsanto, appeared to have an unenviable task. Its seeds are
designed to maximise its profits. They have had genes spliced in which
allow crops to tolerate herbicides that are made, of course, by Monsanto.
The tinkering with plants' genetic code will allow farmers to spray
poisons on their fields without risking the destruction of their crops.
Sober scientists warn of the danger that genes will jump from the crops
into weeds, creating new species of superweeds with a resistance to
herbicides. They talk of genetically manipulated organisms running amok in
ecosystems which cannot handle them, like mink in the Norfolk Broads, and
worry about how crops injected with the genes of bacteria, viruses, fish
and insects will affect the 8% of children who cannot keep their dinner
down because they are allergic to industrial food. But, apart from a
heated meeting at the Guardian, the company met little resistance.
The Economist reinforced its reputation as the tired voice of conventional
wisdom when it made a defence of the gene manipulators last week's lead
item. Those who opposed agribusiness were Luddites, it thundered. Monsanto
itself sounded like an unprecedentedly democratic and fair-minded
In advertisements in the national press, the firm promised to supply
readers with the addresses of vocal green critics of the food industry. it
was rare for a company to give free publicity to its opponents, Monsanto
boasted, "but we believe that food is so fundamentally important, everyone
should know all they want to about it."
The claim that this was an open, transparent company raised hollow laughs
on the other side of the Atlantic. The American press is beginning to
notice a scandal at a Florida TV station owned by Rupert Murdoch. Two of
the station's reporters investigated Monsanto and allege they were
bullied, censored and then fired for their impertinence. Their case raises
the question of whether media owned by multinationals can hhonestly
investigate corporate power. The answer, as far as Jane Akre and Steve
Wilson are concerned, is no..
The husband and wife team joined Tampa's WTVT station in November 1996.
They were reportes with decades of experience, rather than radical young
hotheads out to make trouble. Their job was to break news and Akre quickly
found what looked like a scoop. Florida's milk was coming from cows fed
withh a Monsanto hormone called BGH. The hormone is legal in the U$ but
was banned in many European countries after suggestions from medical
researchers, contested by the company, that it may lead to cancer of the
colon in humans.
Florida supermarkets admitted that they had quietly broken a promise not
to buy milk from farms that used the hormone. Wilson said: "We found
farmers who said the company wasn't properly reporting the drug's adverse
effects on animals, a charge Monsanto eventually acknowledged. We also
documented how Monsanto was using its legal and political muscle to oppose
labelling efforts that would have helped consumers make a choice."
In short, the couple had a good story. WTVT certainly thought so and
booked radio ads to promote the investigation. But just before the reports
were due to be aired, Monsanto's lawyers contacted the executives of Fox
TV, which runs the Florida channel for Murdoch, and complained that the
documentaries were inaccurate.
WTVT went through the reports and told Fox managers that they could not
fault their journalists' work. Fox disagreed, the programme was pulled and
Wilson and Akre were forced to begin an extaordinary process in which the
script for the show was rewritten 70 times.
They could not understand what was happening and told David Boylan, a
Murdoch manager sent by Fox to Florida, that a valid, well-sourced news
story was being stifled. Boylan's reply broke with all the traditions of
the Murdoch empire. In a moment of insane candour, he told an unvarnished
truth which should be framed and stuck on the top of every television set.
"We paid $3 billion for these television stations," he snapped. "We'll
decide what the news is. NEWS IS WHAT WE SAY IT IS."
How nicely put. According to documents supporting a court case the two
reporters are bringing abainst Fox, Murdoch's people insisted the
reporters say that "the public can be confident that milk from BGH-treated
cows is safe." Monsanto told Fox that it had studies to support the
assertation. The reporters said the studies were of cows, not humans. They
claim the management replied with: "That's what Monsanto want, put it in."
The couple refused, saying they would not broadcast inaccurate reports. At
one point, according to their affidavit, the journalists were offered
"large cash settlements" on condition they never talked about the hormone
or how Fox handled news. They refused, and were ordered to change their
script again and again.
None of the scores of rewrites pleased Murdoch's men. The couple were
locked out of their offices at one point. After a year of fighting Fox,
they were fired in December 1997. Their report was never broadcast. Fox
accuses its journalists of "having delusions of grandeur" and being
"advocates" for consumers. But the hacks say, in their evidence to what
promises to be the first court case to investigate the workings of news
organisations, the management could not point to a single factual error in
Murdoch owns, among many, many other companies, Actmedia, a PR firm.
Monsanto is one of its clients. But Akre and Wilson do not believe that
they were knifed simply to avoid upsetting one of the old brute's
customers. They see the censorship as the natural consequence of the
domination of communications by very right-wing businesses whose owners
have more in common with the perpetrators of scandals than their audience.
"We set out to tell the truth about a giant chemical company", said
Wilson. "That used to be something reporters won awards for. As we've
learnt the hhard way, it's something you can be fired for these days".