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

conglomerate.

 

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

their documentaries.

 

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".