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Exposed: Labour's real aim on GM food

Geoffrey Lean
Saturday 22 May 1999 23:02 BST

THE Government's campaign to convince the public that it is determined to protect them, and the environment, against risks from GM crops is a cynical public relations exercise. The real intention is to buy time for industry to develop the crops - and save ministers' faces.

The Independent on Sunday has been passed a confidential document from the office of Cabinet Office minister Jack Cunningham which provides the focus, and most damning description yet, of ministers' objectives in the controversy. It flies in the face of an assurance to the Commons by Mr Cunningham, who is in charge of co-ordinating GM policy, that the Government's "overriding duty is to protect the public and the environment".

It also reveals that the Government is trying to enlist "eminent scientists" to "trail" its public relations "key messages" - even though Mr Cunningham late last week assured the Independent on Sunday that "there is no spin- doctoring exercise with scientists".

Sent to ministers, officials and top aides to Tony Blair just over a week ago by Mr Cunningham's private secretary, the document lays out an astonishingly detailed strategy for spinning, and mobilising support for, the Government's announcement of new measures last Friday. These include establishing two new quangos to oversee GM food and crops; "tough new guidelines" to manage their cultivation; and considering monitoring the effects on health.

The document says it is "important" that ministers "adopt a corporate approach to the announcement" and are clear on what they want to achieve from it. One of the objectives is "to begin to gain acceptance to the view that industry should be given time to develop and demonstrate possible benefits from GM products".

The other objectives are "to demonstrate loudly and clearly that the Government does have a grip on this issue" and "to reassure, and to knock down some of the myths ... by emphasising that the Government is listening to the public, taking steps to boost the protective arrangement, and is committed to a policy of openness and involvement". Mr Cunningham assured the Commons that the Government's "overriding duty" was the protection of public health, yet the document contains just one reference to "protective arrangements" - and that in a spin-doctoring context.

The document adds that last week's attacks on the work of Dr Arpad Puzstai - which suggested that GM potatoes harmed the health of rats - by the Royal Society, a Commons select committee and a advisory body, would give "his peers a legitimate opportunity to comment on the basis of his work and provide a platform for them to trail the Government's Key Messages".

It adds: "The Office of Science and Technology is compiling a list of eminent scientists to be available for broadcast interviews and to author articles. These individuals should be alerted and be prepared to offer comment."

The Government has been attacked previously for trying to get sympathetic scientists exposure in the media, but this is the boldest admission so far that it is trying to co-opt them as part of its PR strategy.

This move appears to contradict an assurance given by Mr Cunningham to the Independent on Sunday that there is "no spin-doctoring exercise with scientists".

Mr Cunningham said: "We have not been advertising for people to come and join in some government media campaign. It is for individual scientists to write their own articles and express their own opinions."


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