Russell Brown's HARD NEWS

12th July 2002 - It's Wrong

Copyright © 2002 Russell Brown

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two days ago I was making notes for a Hard News in which I would say, more in sorrow than anger, that a Labour-led government had misled us and broken the law. Turns out, there's no need. Please put aside any question of whether GM is a good, bad or indifferent thing, or who you'll vote for - or who I'll vote for. Nicky Hager's book turns on the science - and the science in it is WRONG.

This week, Hager launched his new book, 'Seeds of Distrust: The Story of a GE Cover-up'. In it, he claims that in December 2000 the government knowingly allowed a huge batch of imported corn seed contaminated with some genetically modified seeds to be planted, harvested and processed - and covered it up, lying to both the public and the Royal Commission.

Listen here: there was a scare, and it was reported. A few people within the government and related agencies flapped about and there was obviously some confusion - but this was, after all, the first time this had happened. There was no border surveillance and no established practice.

But in the end there was no reliable evidence of contamination - and there was no cover-up. The government told the truth to the public and to the Royal Commission and started checking seed lots at the border. Did they go to the press halfway through? No. And they don't announce the two dozen foot and mouth scares we get every year either.

The bad science here began with the central claim that at least 14,000 GM corn plants had been allowed to grow and be harvested and processed. This was not only a misquote of a report in the book - which said that "If genetically modified material was present at all, it was unlikely to be more than 0.04 per cent," it was a fundamental misapprehension of what it meant.

The 0.04 per cent was a statistical limit. What the report meant was "we can't find any GM seed, but if it is there, it's at a level of less than four seeds per 10,000."

And the media didn't get it. I like John Campbell, both personally and as a broadcasting professional. But in accepting an exclusive, uncritically buying the claims in the book, failing to get independent scientific advice and ambushing the Prime Minister with a bunch of questions she couldn't possibly answer, he and TV3 have got it very badly wrong.

What a difference a day makes. Wednesday night's certainties - there was a cover-up, there was contamination, right here in this very field - had by Thursday become "claims" and "allegations" in Nicky Hager's book. TV3's own "investigation" - if only there had been one - had quite disappeared. TV3 is up the creek. I hope they get a few BSA complaints to teach them a lesson.

National Radio, which got first bite at the story, was no better. After being so precious about election campaign balance that they banned Dougal Stevenson's musings about Dunedin from the air, they have blundered through the most volatile political story in years, doing severe damage to one of the parties contesting the election. And still they won't face it. Sean Plunket in particular has behaved like an idiot.

I'd begun to suspect something was wrong by Thursday morning. But what really cracked it for me was an interview with Dr Russell Poulter. Dr Poulter has been on the air a lot in the last 24 hours - possibly because someone from One News called me for advice and I told them he was important.

But he is not being shopped around by any pricey PR firm. He put out a press release on his own initiative and it looked to me like he'd written it himself as well.

You get a feel for people when you interview them. You can sense the presence of spin, even where you can't do anything about it. And this guy is genuine.

He's the former head of genetics at Otago University and he was commissioned by Heinz Wattie to review the test results. He has also advised the Greens in the past, and Jeanette Fitzsimons told me she respected him. He looks like a tree-hugger, frankly.

By the time my interview with him had finished, I was shaking as it dawned on me what a horrible thing had happened. You can hear the interview online at the addresses below.

Poulter isn't the only scientist to back the government view. They all have. On Hager's side, we only have the unnamed "experts" in his book. We don't know who these people are, whether they're qualified or even, really, if they exist.

Jeanette told me she would be prepared to hear him out if he'd seen all the results. Well, he has, and she should.

If they value their integrity, she and the Green Party, and Bill English and Greenpeace and everyone else must walk away from this deeply flawed conspiracy theory. And Nicky Hager? No comment.

So, has this been a grand political plot by the Green Party? I don't think so - not at the leadership level anyway. But the leadership can still do the right thing. Until they do, this weird and ugly election campaign will continue to get weirder and uglier


Interviews conducted on Thursday with Dr Russell Poulter, Marian Hobbs, Jeanette Fitzsimons and Francis Wevers are available at: (MP3 download)

and (MP3 streams)

Russell Brown

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