Media: Science Fiction ; the Science Media Centre Was Accused of Ugly Tactics by the Guardian's Alan Rusbridger When It Criticised His Anti-GM TV Drama, Fields of Gold. the Centre's Director, FIONA FOX, Was Not Impressed
Fox, Fiona, The Independent (London, England)
It's a fairly safe bet that if the authors of Fields of Gold, the drama about GM crops screened on BBC 1, are asked to produce a sequel to their "conspiracy thriller", they will write in a new role for a sinister, biotech-funded media centre. The real-life Science Media Centre (SMC) found itself cast in its own conspiracy by the drama's authors - Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, and his co-author and Guardian colleague Ronan Bennett - after a row about the plausibility of the science in the anti-GM storyline. In a series of newspaper articles and television interviews, the writers described the new SMC as a "lobby group" for big biotech companies, and accused the centre of orchestrating an ugly, secret campaign to discredit the programme and "dump on" The Guardian and the BBC.
The truth about the SMC and its role in this story is less sinister. Having offered the centre's services to scientists looking to promote "research, voices and opinions on to the news agenda", we were approached for advice on the drama. Among those concerned was Mark Tester, the Cambridge University scientist who had acted as an adviser to the programme-makers (ironically, recommended to the BBC by The Guardian).
Tester believed that the BBC had ignored his advice in favour of a sensationalist storyline. While he admits that, like all good scientists, he will never entirely rule out any theoretical possibilities, he insists that he urged programme-makers not to run the plot of an antibiotic-resistance gene being transmitted more than once from crops to animals to people with devastating effects.
The centre's initial response was to urge caution on the basis that the drama was a piece of fiction and therefore not bound by the same rules as documentary. However, Tester and other scientists had been asked by the BBC to take part in a web debate on the issues raised in the drama and understood that the BBC were keen to use the publicity around the programme to promote a wider public discussion about GM. As Mark Tester said, "the alarm bells went off when I was called by someone at the BBC who said the drama would `show the GM conspiracy as it really is'".
In the event, the scientists' concerns were proved right as big- name actors including Anna Friel and Max Beesley used promotional interviews to suggest that for them, it was more than purely fiction. Beesley, who played the heroic anti-GM farmer, told the Express: "I've learned a lot more about GM foods from doing it and the programme has been very brave. People are going to think it's sensationalism because it is television, but I think that it's very close to what actually goes on." Pre-publicity on the BBC website declared one of the aims of the drama as "tapping into a very real fear, to make people think about what they eat", and Alan Rusbridger declared that Fields of Gold, "will - if it succeeds - engage a mass audience and make them question the issues behind it".
The scientists' real concern was that, if unchallenged, the drama and publicity around it could generate another round of anti-GM headlines which would further entrench public opposition at a crucial time in the debate over GM. The Science Media Centre, with its brief to help ensure that the public gets access to all sides of the debate about controversial issues by helping scientists to engage with the media, agreed to help. It was felt that our concern about the potential for the story to develop into an unsavoury media row, did not seem to be a good justification to turn away scientists whose only aim was to ensure that the viewing public be made aware that this GM drama was science fiction not science fact. …