Mental stupor made them lie about BSE

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

Share

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?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operations & Logistics Manager

£38000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's best performing...

Recruitment Genius: GeoDatabase Specialist - Hazard Modelling

£35000 - £43000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our award-winning client is one...

Recruitment Genius: Compressed Air Pipework Installation Engineer

£15000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of Atlas ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: With 100 days still to go how will Cameron, Miliband and Co. keep us all engaged?

Andrew Grice
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea