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Seeds Of Distrust - (Extract) Media Manipulation

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Seeds Of Distrust - Chapter 8 - Media Manipulation

By Nicky Hager - Published July 10th 2002

There should be a rule in newsrooms, and especially in the Press Gallery where parliamentary journalists work, that any decisions announced by Government in the last week before Christmas will be scrutinised with the greatest suspicion. The rule would specify that extra attention be given to announcements that make the Government look responsible and good, since why would the Government be wanting these buried in the pre-Christmas rush?

Unfortunately there is no such rule in news organisations, only the pressures of a busy schedule of Christmas parties, darting out to do Christmas shopping and preparing for the holidays. That is why Governments have learned the simple and cynical trick of putting off announcements they do not want looked at too closely until that week.

The day chosen for the public announcement on the seed issue was six days before Christmas, on Tuesday 19 December 2000, by which time the thousands of GE corn plants were starting to mature and would soon be scattering their pollen. Marian Hobbs would be the spokesperson for the Government. A close look at the media management techniques used that day illustrates how, if you control all the information, an announcement can actually be a cover-up.

Earlier that year Hobbs had been interviewed by the New Zealand Herald about genetic engineering and spoke of her concerns about 'the whole dimension of the Tangata Whenua in relation to GE.' She said she was satisfied that the field-testing moratorium, running concurrent with the Royal Commission, would mean 'issues around safety and biodiversity are on hold'. 'What's not on hold,' she said, 'is ethics and the absolute importance of people being informed.' [1]

The preparation of the announcement was co-ordinated by the Ministry for the Environment and overseen by Ruth Wilkie in the Prime Minister's Department. A set of background papers was prepared for Hobbs, including two 'Question and Answer' sheets, the MAF $100 million economic impact report and information on past GE field trial approvals.

The Question and Answer sheet on sweet corn had gone through multiple drafts. An early draft had said 'In essence some of the tests have shown the presence of a genetic sequence which is strongly indicative of a genetic modification.' A week later it had been changed to 'If genetically modified material was present at all, it was unlikely to be more than 0.04% of this.' By the time it was given to Hobbs ten days after that, it misleadingly read 'If genetically modified material was present at all in that shipment, the amount present was below the level that could be reliably detected.' [2]

The day of the announcement was thoroughly stage-managed: who would say what, how could the announcement be made to look routine and how difficult issues could be ducked had all been carefully planned. No warning had been given to the media in advance. The first they knew of the issue, which had been the focus of frantic crisis management for the previous five weeks, was when Marian Hobbs' press secretary nonchalantly delivered a media statement around the Press Gallery at 9 a.m.

Making the announcement at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, after most journalists had stayed late the evening before covering Monday Cabinet, ensured that there were not many people around the Press Gallery and some news organisations missed the story altogether. The journalists who were there were told that Hobbs would be available to answer questions in her office at 10.30 a.m.

The media statement was a distillation of all the 'careful and balanced' words that had been evolving over the previous weeks to obscure and hide the controversy. The Cabinet paper a week earlier had said that there was 'no reliable evidence for concern about GM contamination', and only someone who'd read very carefully might have noticed that this just meant contamination 'not above the level' to be 'tolerated'. The media statement, however, was the final step in totally denying that there had ever been any detectable contamination present.

The strategy of hiding the real story behind a dull-sounding import procedure announcement is immediately clear in the title of the media statement: 'New Safeguards Against GM Seed Introduction'. The 'good news' statement (which is reproduced at the end of the book) began:

New measures are being developed by the Government to guard against the inadvertent introduction of genetically-modified seed, the Minister for the Environment and Biosecurity, Marian Hobbs, announced today. [3]

'We feel the need to strengthen border controls with respect to checking seed imports for possible GM presence,' Hobbs was quoted as saying in the statement.

In the fourth paragraph, she complimented seed importers for the 'very responsible approach' they were taking to 'managing the risks of possible GM content in batches of seeds'. This was a reference, we must assume, to the same food companies that were quietly leaving crops in the ground from the contaminated seed batch.

It was not until the fifth paragraph that the statement mentioned that these responsible importers had 'alerted the Environmental Risk Management Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry to the possibility that some imported conventional sweetcorn seed might contain traces of genetically modified material.' And then straight into the cover-up:

'Although initial testing suggested there might be minute traces of GM content, a more detailed evaluation concluded with a high degree of confidence that, if present at all, the GM material was at levels below that which can be reliably detected,' she [Marion Hobbs] said.

The rest of the statement was some of the now familiar justifications for adopting a regime that accepted up to 0.5% contamination. 'Absolute certainty would require every seed to be tested' (and therefore destroyed). 'The only way to possibly eliminate the risk would be to ban all seed imports from all of the countries currently growing GM crops, a list which includes many of New Zealand's major trading partners.' 'Losses of an estimated $100 million a year [would] affect farmers and growers in many parts of the country'. The statement concluded by saying how 'cautious' and 'conservative' the Government's new approach was.

At 10 a.m., Hobbs had been given a final briefing from the senior officials who were handling the issue, to check that she had her lines off pat. The officials had written two scripts for her, both standard tools in highly controlled PR strategies. One, known slightly disparagingly among communications people as a 'song sheet', was a deliberately short and simple set of points to guide Hobbs in what she should say. The other, called the 'back pocket notes', was a carefully structured guide on how to say as little as possible if she had to go beyond the song sheet.

These PR documents, which together with the press release are reproduced at the back of the book, are illuminating about the way the news media (and Ministers) can be managed. The details of the Government's media strategy had been co-ordinated with the companies' PR people so that, if the story could not be contained to the basic announcement, everyone involved would be saying, and not saying, the same things. This Government-business collaboration included lining up at least one sympathetic industry group to chime in supporting the Government's announcement as soon as it came out. Nothing was being left to chance.

The song sheet, tactfully titled 'Key points for the Minister', was a mixture of real information, PR spin and, well, not real information. For example, point one was: 'No evidence of GM crops in New Zealand.' All the other favourite lines were there: the $100 million cost of not implementing the 0.5% regime, 'interim proposals are near limits of reliable detection' and so on. The song sheet even said, 'NZ not GM free … GM research for last 12 years; food in supermarkets has GM content', presumably, when Hobbs announced the acceptance of GE contamination, in order to play down the significance of the fact that New Zealand had never before (officially) allowed GE organisms to be released into the environment.

The back pocket notes were evasions in case a journalist started asking probing questions. To a series of possible questions, there were one or more answers for Hobbs, depending on how hard she was pushed or whether the journalist had some information from elsewhere. For instance:

'Where are these crops growing?
1. In a number of regions of New Zealand. I suggest you talk to the industry spokesperson, Peter Silcock.
2. There are plantings in East Coast, Hawkes Bay and Marlborough
3. I do not know the actual sites where these crops are growing.'

The purpose of these options was, clearly, so the Government could release as little information as could be got away with. Contrary to what Hobbs had promised, it seems 'ethics and the absolute importance of people being informed' had been put on hold.

The media plans all worked perfectly. It appears from the media coverage that hardly any journalists bothered to go up to Hobbs' office. Most newspapers used a short story prepared by the New Zealand Press Association, which was almost word for word a slightly shortened version of the media statement: the PR staff's words were transferred almost verbatim onto the nation's newspaper pages. One paper tried slightly harder, inserting three paragraphs from a Green Party press release (which had responded to the Government one) into its own barely altered version of the media statement.

The newspapers, by simply transferring the Government media statement into their stories, at least included the paragraphs that hinted there had been some sort of initial concern about possible contamination. But the radio news coverage bought the 'good news' story completely.

The radio coverage featured Hobbs ad libbing on tape, not just the written 'quotes' from the media statement that were used in the newspaper stories. But there was no need for her to use the back pocket notes, because no probing questions were asked.

Hobbs followed her lines well. The song sheet said 'testing every seed means grinding up and destroying ability to grow'. According to the transcript, Hobbs said on Radio New Zealand's midday rural news: 'you can never say anything is totally GE free, unless you were to test every seed and, therefore, nothing to plant, because when you test the seed you destroy it [laughs]'. The song sheet said 'Interim proposals are near limits of reliable detection'. Hobbs said 'It's only an interim, of testing, to a limit of 0.5%. And 0.5% is as tight as we can go to reliably say that there is neither GE seed present in the consignment.' She made the obligatory friendly comment about business (about the companies raising the issue of contaminated crops) without needing notes: 'This has actually come from the industry. They are as concerned as anybody else that we are GE free.' She ended by going beyond her notes, leaving any doubts about the contamination behind: 'We do a tremendous amount of testing … you call it cultivar development of new seeds in New Zealand, and the value to us is because we are GE-free.' [4]

'Drowned in paper… short of time', Hobbs was letting herself be part of the media manipulation planned elsewhere: fronting for decisions made by Helen Clark and using arguments scripted by officials. Ultimately, it was Novartis' lines she was speaking. This reminds us that Cabinet Ministers, those 'ultimate arbiters of Government policy', spend a lot of their time reading speeches, signing letters and approving policy papers prepared by others. Unless they keep themselves well-informed by getting information from a variety of sources and are determined on an issue, they are a bit like figureheads on the front of the ship of state.

The Government announcement was definitely not TV news material – too boring and complex. Any media statement where the second sentence begins 'Officials are working on a seed testing regime and best practice guidelines' is most likely destined for the bin. So, as far as I know, the story was not covered by television news. The back pocket notes covering the question 'Can we get film of these crops?' (answer: 'I suggest you talk to the industry spokesperson') were not required.

The final stage of the contaminated seeds media strategy was what is called third party endorsements. This is the well-worn PR tactic where, if you think that the public may not wholly believe what you say, you get someone who sounds more independent to say it for you. It's remarkable how unsuspecting some news organisations seem to be when these independent voices pop up at the right time.

Officials had contacted and briefed the Vegetable and Potato Growers Federation in advance so that, shortly after the release of the Government's media statement, the Federation responded praising the Government's decision. The midday radio news item that interviewed Hobbs began: 'Vegetable.growers are among those relieved that the Government has introduced a new testing regime for seed imports to prevent the inadvertent introduction of genetically modified seeds.' Not bad coverage for a decision that had actually been formulated to 'tolerate' the inadvertent introduction of GE seeds.

The media strategy had also included a special briefing for the Green Party's Jeanette Fitzsimons (illustrating the less than altruistic side of 'consultation'). Although suspicious about genetic engineering, Fitzsimons also believed what she was told about the limitations and inconclusiveness of the corn testing and so gave support to the Government's move. Since she'd been notified in advance, she had a media statement – 'GE standards for seed protects New Zealand's market advantage' – ready to go out on the morning of the announcement. It was issued by the Green Party media unit before Marian Hobbs' press conference was finished.

The media statement 'welcomed the Government's move today to screen all imported seeds which are to be grown in New Zealand'. It said:

Possible contamination came to light when a company supplying an order for GE-free corn for export tested its imported seed to check it could guarantee its purity….

“The fact that New Zealand was chosen as the place to grow this crop underlines the benefits we have always claimed of maintaining our GE-free reputation,” said Ms Fitzsimons. “However today's developments show just how easily we could lose this advantage through inadvertant GE contamination. We must be extremely vigilant to preserve our rare GE free status which is already bringing economic benefits”….' [5]

The Green Party co-leader Rod Donald, quoted in the Press, said 'the more stringent regulations were good. “In our view New Zealand's agricultural future depends on us remaining GM-free.” He said the Green Party accepted that zero tolerance at the point of importation was impossible. “What is crucial is that if the crop is found to contain GM material, it is destroyed.”' [6]

Both of the Green Party leaders had been successfully misled by the misinformation and clearly neither of them had any inkling there was a cover-up. They had been cleverly used as part of the Government's media plan.

The media strategy, if it had been written down, would have said something like this:

- Spin the announcement into a good news story about the Government acting to keep New Zealand GE-free
- Present the announcement as routine and unexceptional
- Mention the sweet corn contamination in a brief and inconspicuous way, concluding that no contamination occurred, to avoid any future claims of the Government not being open about it
- Do not mention the companies, locations or health and environmental issues
- Give the publicity a 'Government and business working well together spin', and emphasise how responsible and co-operative the seed companies have been
- Ensure that the story is dead and forgotten in 24 hours

It worked precisely to plan. At the end of that day, there was a sense of euphoria and relief among all the people who had worked over the preceding weeks to control the crisis. The media had uncritically swallowed the announcement. Nothing had leaked out. No one had stuffed up. Even the Green Party had believed the stories.

They had got away with it.


1. Marian Hobbs, interviewed in Carroll du Chateau ,'GE: Brave New World', New Zealand Herald, 6 May 2000
2. Ministry for the Environment, confidential question and answer sheet on the incident, 30 November 2000, 8 December 2000 and 15 December 2000.
3. The Government was indeed bringing in seed testing where previously there had been none. But, by accepting contamination, it was such a poor regime compared to what was possible (see next chapter) that it was not really good news.
4. Marian Hobbs, interviewed on Radio New Zealand Rural News, 12.36 p.m., 19 December 2000.
5. Green Party, media statement, 'GE standards for seed protects New Zealand's market advantage', 19 December 2000, issued at 10:44 a.m.
6. Press, 'Seed imports scrutinised', 21 December 2000.

(c) Copyright Nicky Hager, 2002
(c) Copyright Craig Potton Publishing, 2002
All Rights Reserved. This extract is republished with permission of the Author.

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