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The Times

BBC incited eco-terror on GM drama website. By Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent. June 11, 2002

THE BBC was accused of inciting vandalism against genetically modified crops after it publicised a website carrying details of trial locations immediately after a drama in which a wheatfield was set alight by anti-GM activists.

In the final scene of the BBC1 thriller, which has been widely criticised for misrepresenting the science of GM crops, two of the central characters were seen burning a trial crop of GM wheat purported to be harbouring a dangerous bacterium.

A continuity announcer then directed viewers to the BBC website for further details of the locations of real GM crop trials, as the final credits rolled. The Fields of Gold website features a point-and-click guide to where field trials are taking place.

Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society and a former government Chief Scientific Adviser, who had criticised the play as a ludicrous piece of alarmist science fiction, said: “It is hard to believe that the BBC could have made matters any worse after their screening of this laughable piece of anti-GM propaganda. However, to follow the final scene, which featured a burning field of GM crops, with a plug for the BBC’s guide to ‘finding a trial site near you’ was tantamount to inciting eco-terrorism.

“It demonstrates just how totally irresponsible the BBC has been in this matter. The BBC has allowed the authors of this wildly biased anti-GM polemic to exploit their contacts within the media in order to impose their one-sided political views on a sensitive public debate. It is to be hoped that viewers were not fooled into thinking this BBC programme was anything but a party political broadcast from the anti-GM protest movement.”

The BBC said that its website also featured a more balanced discussion of the issues surrounding GM crops. “Far from being an incitement to direct action, the invitation to visit the website was an invitation for people to find out more about the facts about GM and an opportunity to get involved in discussion and debate about the issue,” a spokeswoman said. The programmes attracted approximately six million viewers, which she said was very good for a drama. The corporation was further criticised for cancelling immediately after the second programme an online discussion to have featured Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian and one of the writers of Fields of Gold, and Mark Tester, the programme’s scientific consulant, who has condemned it for ignoring his advice.

The BBC spokeswoman said that it had had to withdraw the online chat because of a shortage of technical staff. Dr Tester said he felt that he had been denied an opportunity to make his views on the drama clear. “You would have thought they would have made it a priority in light of the criticism,” he said.

Dr Tester and other researchers said that the plot of the conspiracy thriller, in which a GM crop gives rise to an untreatable bacterium, was riddled with errors of fact.

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “It was irresponsible of the BBC to screen this programme. There are many serious questions surrounding GM crops. Objectivity and sound science were thrown out of the window in Fields of Gold in favour of sensationalism and science fiction.”