Mental stupor made them lie about BSE

"Propaganda," said Abba Eban, "is the art of persuading others of what one does not believe oneself."

If the elderly former Israeli foreign minister ever wades through Lord Phillips' report, he will surely conclude that the politicians, officials and scientists who so lamentably failed to defuse the BSE crisis got even their public relations back to front.

If the elderly former Israeli foreign minister ever wades through Lord Phillips' report, he will surely conclude that the politicians, officials and scientists who so lamentably failed to defuse the BSE crisis got even their public relations back to front.

For one of the clearest messages of the three-year, 18-volume, investigation is that, far from persuading the public through their decade-long "campaign of reassurance", they only succeeded in convincing themselves.

Worse, their belief in their own propaganda led to their failure to take the necessary action fast enough. Deluding themselves that beef was safe, they naturally failed to rush to safeguard the public. If there was nothing to worry about, what on earth was there to hurry about?

It is a frequent phenomenon, a kind of Stockholm Syndrome - where captives come to identify with those who take them hostage - in reverse. Seduced by a hazard they are supposed to be controlling, regulators come to believe that it poses no threat.

Let's call it the Chernobyl Syndrome, for it caused the world's worst nuclear disaster. The reactor's operators progressively switched off all its safety systems until, as the chief Russian investigator put it, it "was free to do as it wished".

How could they have been so foolish? The answer is that they had come to believe the nuclear industry's assurances that such an accident could never take place. In the words of Brian Edmundson, one of the British experts attending the official post-mortem conference, they had "lost their fear of the reactor".

The Chernobyl Syndrome is at the heart of Sellafield's appalling safety record. It has also sanctioned the vilification and marginalisation of several dissident scientists - Professor Derek Bryce-Smith, who warned of the dangers of leaded petrol; Professor Alice Stewart, who uncovered the hazards of radiation, and Professor Richard Lacey over BSE.

Lord Phillips' report pinpoints the onset of the syndrome as the moment in December 1986 when a MAFF civil servant stamped the first note on the disease "confidential". From then until the announcement 10 years later that the disease had indeed spread to people, he says, "officials and ministers followed an approach whose object was sedation".

He explains why: "They did not trust the public". They feared that it would react "irrationally", that each piece of evidence of hazard "would be seized on by the media and by dissident scientists as demonstrating that BSE was a danger to humans".

Of course, most ordinary people remained much more cautious than those who were supposed to be protecting them. And much of the media - praised by the report for its "pertinent and well-informed critique" - scented a large and malodorous Whitehall rat.

Those who were sedated were those who should have been most watchful. The report quotes the chairman of the food industry's own Meat and Livestock Commission blaming the widespread failure of abattoirs to obey BSE safety regulations on "an attitude that says: 'you have told us that this disease was not a threat to humans, so why do we need all these controls?'"

It shows how manufacturers and officials failed to safeguard vaccines and medicines because they believed the propaganda. And it blames the syndrome for the Department for Education's failure - over two years - to warn schools against allowing students to dissect cattle eyeballs, although everyone agreed it was dangerous.

"Here, as in other areas," says the report, "excessively reassuring language about the risk from BSE sedated those who needed to act."

I asked Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister - minutes after his sombre presentation to the House of Commons - whether there were any lessons to be learned for the GM controversy. No, he said, there was "no read-across". Fancy a trip to Chernobyl, Nick?

Comments