Science in Society Archive

Pro-GM Royal Society Fellow Named as Source of Libel Case Allegations

The High Court in London has been told that a letter from Prof. Anthony Trewavas, well-known champion of GM and critic of organic agriculture, contained a series of unfounded allegations about Greenpeace and Lord Melchett that should never have been published. Jonathan Matthews reports.

The Scottish newspaper, the Herald, has just had to make a public apology for a series of allegations that had "no foundation" and "should not have been published". The High Court in London was told that the allegations were contained in a letter from Anthony Trewavas, Professor in Plant Biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to the public apology for publishing the letter, the Herald has also had to pay undisclosed damages and all the legal costs arising from the libel case [1].

The libellous allegations concerned the campaigning over GM foods of Greenpeace and its former Director, Peter Melchett. The letter in question alleged that Greenpeace was profiteering through corporate "shakedowns" while its Director manipulated the market to line his own pocket. So how on earth did one of Scotland's leading dailies get into such a scrape?

The most obvious explanation for the paper's failure to apply its normal standards of editorial scrutiny is, of course, the confidence they may have placed in Prof. Trewavas. Trewavas is not only UK Government advisor on GM, but a leading Fellow of the Royal Society, the very body that has sat in judgement on the issue of journalistic accuracy in relation to issues like the GM foods debate. Indeed, the Royal Society has issued guidelines for the press on science-related matters, and even provides the media with a directory of experts to ensure that journalists get their stories right [3].

Back in May 1999, following the Pusztai affair, a House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Report first called for the media's science-related coverage to be governed by a strict code of conduct for accuracy. The report began by quoting the Press Complaints Commission Code that, "newspapers and periodicals must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material", and warned, "Editors must be able to demonstrate that the necessary steps have been taken".

To help the media to do this the Royal Society published its 'media directory' in order to provide a list of scientists that journalists should consult to give them access to "the best source" of "advice and comment".

Had the Herald letters editor consulted the media guide, he'd have quickly found Prof. Trewavas listed among the "Royal Society experts" on genetic manipulation and plant molecular biology [3]. So will the Royal Society admonish Prof. Trewavas and remove him from its list of journalistic advisors?

It hardly seems likely given the Royal Society's own sorry history of media interference in this area: "We have contributed early and proactively to public debate about genetically modified plants..." [4]. Most notoriously, this pro-active contribution resulted in a front page story in the Guardian that suggested media manipulation of the GM debate has been critical to the RS's own agenda [5].

Prof. Trewavas, in an earlier letter to US scientists, advised them to work with far right politicians like Jesse Helms, and to make full use of letters to the press. He further stated that there was a group of about a dozen leading UK scientists who were working together at the core of pro-GM campaigning in this country. This letter was posted on a notorious pro-biotech e-mail list [6] that has been running smears against critics of GM - its most recent giving them a share in the blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks! It is from this list that Prof Trewavas now claims the material sent to the Herald originated.

But it hasn't been just the Royal Society that has given Prof. Trewavas a place of honour. The UK Government has also sought to benefit from his expertise by appointing him one of its advisors on GM [7].

And, apart from sitting on the UK's Advisory Committee on Genetic Modification (ACGM), Trewavas is also on the Governing Council of the John Innes Centre, the UK's leading plant biotech research institute. The Governing Council has responsibility for developing , together with the JIC' s Director, the long-term vision of the institute [8].

The JIC's Director, Prof. Chris Lamb, has publicly expressed his concern at the "polarisation of discussion about agriculture", and declared it is part of the JIC's vision to seek to foster "balanced scientific discussion".

That vision cannot have been served by a member of JIC Governing Council accusing a non-profit public interest organisation of operating "various shakedown campaigns", receiving "big $$" from self-interested companies, and being susceptible to "well-placed pay-offs".

But then, Prof Jonathan Jones of the JIC has shown his commitment to "balanced debate" by calling GM critics, "the green mujihadeen", and posting material on the JIC website describing them as "anti-scientific", "bigoted", "mystical", "myopic" and prone to erupt with "green bile" [9]. So the JIC is perhaps even less likely to take action over Trewavas and the implications of the libel case than the Government, or the Royal Society.

And is it irrelevant to this world of double standards that both the JIC and many Fellows of the Royal Society have benefited hugely from investments from the leading biotech corporations? The Royal Society, via its fundraising campaign, has also received millions from corporations, including Rhône Poulenc and Glaxo-Welcome [10]. And, of course, former food industry boss, GM enthusiast and biotech entrepreneur, Lord David Sainsbury, has given millions both to the John Innes Centre and to the governing Labour Party, who have given him a peerage and made him Science Minister [11].

  1. The Herald's apology contained the following statements,
    "On 3 November 2000 the Herald published a letter it had received from Anthony Trewavas, Professor in Plant Biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh."
    "The letter alleged that Greenpeace campaigns had deliberately spread unfounded fears about GM Foods, so as to further the financial interests of Lord Melchett and Greenpeace, that Greenpeace accepted donations from companies and had inappropriate links with commercial organisations."
    "The Herald acknowledges that there is no foundation in any of these allegations."
    "The Herald recognises that the letter should not have been published and offers its apologies to Greenpeace and Lord Melchett for its publication. Lord Melchett has agreed to donate his damages to charity; The Herald has also agreed to pay the Claimants' legal costs." http://www.thescotsman.co.uk/uk.cfm?id=113633
  2. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/sciencewar-pr.php
  3. http://www.royalsociety.org/news/index.html
  4. President's Address, The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99.
  5. http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/rs.htm
  6. Tony Trewavas, "Advice to US scientists", Apr 18 2000, AgBioView..
  7. http://www.hse.gov.uk/foi/members.htm
  8. http://www.jic.bbsrc.ac.uk/corporate/About_JIC/gov_council.html
  9. http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/biospin.htm
  10. The Royal Society Annual Review 1998-99, p.26.
  11. http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/biospin.htm;
    http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/rsfunding.htm
    http://www.red-star-research.org.uk/subframe3.html

Reply by Prof. Trewavas

Dear Dr Ho

Thankyou.

The letter in question was posted on agbioview and was written by a lady in London. I passed it on to a gentleman in Glasgow who had interests in organic farming and he sent it on to the Herald under my name. Both have since apologised to me. I have contacted the solicitor on the Herald who handled the case and he will get back to me. I provided the evidence at the time of the contact between the Herald and Greenpeace who also found out I had not written the letter. I should add that the libel trial was between those two and did not involve me.

Sincerely yours Anthony Trewavas

Anthony Trewavas FRS
Institute of Cell and Molecular Biology
Mayfield Road
University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh EH9 3JH
Scotland
Phone 44 (0)1316505328
Fax 44 (0)1316505392

Article first published 11/10/01


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