Corporate Watch, Issue 9, Autumn 1999.

GM Spin Doctor - Heal Thyself

Numbed by 20 years of neo-liberal propaganda, people have been conditioned to look to science and technology for the answers to society's major political problems, while politicians are content to 'manage'.[1]

We sniffed a rat - one which looked like it might well have damaged organs and a depressed immune system[2]. Two reports in The Observer revealed that Tory MP for Worcester, Peter Luff, in addition to being chairman of the Commons Agriculture Select Committee, is also in the pay of Bell Pottinger, public relations and lobbying adviser to the US biotechnology giant, Monsanto[3]. According to the second report, several members of this committee - which is supposed to be 'policing' Government farming and food policy - were unaware of Luff's other job. Although he had included it in his Members' Interests, he had not announced it to his fellow committee members, and they would, accordingly, "call on Tuesday for a vote of no confidence in his chairmanship." But, curiously, there the story died.

There appeared to be a clear conflict of interest here, as Luff himself acknowledged: "In view of the controversial nature of Monsanto and the GM debate, I have concluded that I should have told you all sooner. I apologise to those of you who feel I was less than honest with you - this was not my intention." However, this rings rather hollow in view of the committee's report on Genetically Modified Organisms - a rather vapid one at that - which concluded that committee scrutiny of GM issues would, "serve as a useful reminder to Government of the need for transparency and informed debate on the issue."[4] It is hard to believe, in this context, that Luff's omission was a wholly innocent oversight.

So, what had come of the reported call for a vote of no confidence? We phoned the committee, telling them of this dead story, only to receive the nonchalant reply, "How interesting," and an assertion that this aspect of the news report had been false. We challenged The Observer with this, and it now looks like the story is getting back on its feet, although how steadily remains to be seen: Lord Tim Bell of Bell Pottinger told us that the Observer story was, "a piece of shit journalism."[5] We also asked him about his decision not to join the Association of Professional Political Consultants, a trade body set up to improve the image of lobbyists; his reasons, he impressed on us, were not at all because the APPC prohibits members from paying serving politicians - a practice which is illegal in the US[6].

Bell Pottinger is one of the UK's main private sector propaganda machines. Its parent company, Chime Communications has as its chairman Lord Tim Bell, controversial PR guru for Margaret Thatcher. He can also boast on his CV the following illustrious clients: South Africa's National Party; the Coal Board during the 1984 miners' strike; post-Dayton, Milosevic-led Yugoslavia; and, as well as Lady Thatcher herself, three other important figures in the Pergau dam affair, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir, Lord Weinstock, chief executive of GEC, and Tan Sri Armugam, head of GEC Malaysia[7]. If this doesn't put you off your GM food, Bell not only advised the pro-Pinochet runner for president, Hernan Buchi, in Chile's first elections since the coup of 1973, but also ran a £200,000 PR campaign in the UK for the General himself after his arrest.[8] For his services - for which he had already excessively rewarded himself financially[9] - Bell was knighted by Lady Thatcher and given a peerage by Tony Blair. And his moral integrity and compassion are well evidenced in his intelligent and candid comments: "Restrictions on the market are socialism and should therefore be resisted tooth and nail," and, "If you want to stamp out lobbying, it would be a bit like John Wolfendon and prostitution. He didn't stamp it out - he made it done behind closed doors. So probably the much more sensible route would be to try to make sure it is as open as possible."[10]

So, what need did Monsanto have of curb-crawling? Clearly, they've had a PR problem in their attempts to push GMOs onto us, especially following their £1m, Bartle Bogle Hegarty-run ad campaign last year which ended up falling foul of the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA ruled that Monsanto had been "misleading", had expressed its own opinion "as accepted fact", and had claimed benefits of GM food which, "had not been fully assessed by regulatory bodies in the UK or the USA."[11]

Monsanto's public image is indeed in a bad way. In February, the company was fined for failing to control properly an area of GM oil-seed rape[12]. In the same month, it was revealed that the company had funded the Rowett Research Institute, to the tune of £140,000[13]. The same institute which suspended Dr. Arpad Pusztai after he claimed GM foods could be harmful. Monsanto had also received bad press for its overall corporate strategy of attempting to gain full control of the food chain by buying up other seed companies and ensnaring farmers into total dependence on Monsanto products: "We are aiming to consolidate the whole food chain," a Monsanto director told the Indian press[14]. As Christian Aid summarized the situation, "the new technology puts too much power over food into too few hands."[15] Monsanto's aggressive expansion and marketing campaigns in Brazil and India have led to open conflict with even the respective governments, which clearly have more bottle than our government does. Indian farmers were bombarded with flashy advertising, sales promotions and sponsorship of events, in the name of buying Monsanto's GM cotton seeds. Mark Wells, head of marketing in India, told a Guardian journalist to go and visit Prof MS Swaminathan who, he said, is "balanced about GM." But the professor was less than admiring of corporate ways: "Ah, Monsanto. It has so much money... They came to me but the damage had been done. I told them to give information, not PR. When they buy the big seed companies, it creates the suspicion that agriculture is becoming proprietory, that science is not in the public good. We are afraid of these large companies. Ethics is important. They must have a commitment to poverty alleviation, not profit alone."[16] For us, in the UK, if it's information rather than PR that you want, don't bother visiting the London Science Museum's Future Food exhibition - it has been devised with the involvement of British biotech corporation Zeneca, for whom, incidentally, Dr Richard Simpson, Labour MSP for Ochil, is a £5,000-a-year consultant![17]

So, Monsanto will be seeking to come across better than telling us that they have "no need to guarantee the safety of genetically modified food products,"[18] which is, instead, a matter for government regulators. And they will most certainly not be reminding us that they brought us Agent Orange, PCBs and BST/BGH.[19] When asked if Monsanto's PR situation was salvageable, "Very much, yes," was David Hill's reply, former Labour party spokesman, now working for Bell Pottinger Good Relations![20]

The salvage operation has been taken up with zeal by our corporate-friendly Labour government (it seems that Monsanto may be getting their money's worth from Bell Pottinger.) According to a Downing Street spokesman, "The prime minister said it was extraordinary the extent to which the media... gave huge reports to anything which fed the hysteria [against GM foods]."[21] But if there is any anti-GM hysteria, it is more than matched by that of the pro-GM camp, who naively claim that the corporations' GM technology is well nigh a gift from God: that it is more environmentally friendly, and, even, that it will enable us to feed the starving. These are people who would do well to read Christian Aid's report on the subject; however one wonders if the report could have any impact on a mind which can adopt the illogical position that we should test GM crops in the environment to see if they are safe enough to be released into the environment! When faced with such state madness, it becomes understandable how responsible citizens might feel that to commit criminal damage against a GM 'test' site is the only option left open to them.

It was interesting to see what became of the request, by the Agriculture Ministry's Central Science Laboratory, that the Church Commissioners allow their land be used for GM trials. Stuart Bell, Labour MP for Middlesborough, is the Commissioners' chairman and, like Peter Luff, is also an employee of Bell Pottinger![22] Not surprisingly, Bell was reported to have been deeply involved in this debate.[23] However, a degree of integrity prevailed, and the Commissioners' Ethical Investment Working Group decided to put off a decision until they had completed a full inquiry into the issues. The Rev Paul Cawthorne commended this timely application of the brakes, saying, "I'm pleased that the church has shown caution because expediting the commercialisation has led to a clouding of the moral issues."[24] Are Bell Pottinger flagging?

But God is dead, and we shall need more than theology to exorcise the lobbyists from government. We may hope, perhaps, that last year's 'Lobbygate' cash-for-access scandal will prompt the Neill (formerly Nolan) Committee on Standards in Public Life to call for statutory legislation over them.[25]

Lord Bell wrote, in last year's Chime Communications annual report, "We believe we are well positioned for organic growth..." Let's hope he's right, albeit not quite in the way he intended!


[1] Analysis: It's business as usual , by Jean-Pierre Berlan and Richard C Lewontin, Guardian 22.2.99.
Royal Society dismisses 'flawed' GM food research , Guardian 18.5.99. Heartfelt fears of the whistleblower who spilled the beans over GM foods , Daily Telegraph 10.6.99
Monsanto's lobby firm pays key MP , Observer 4.7.99; Resign call over MP's link with GM food firm , ibid. 11.7.99. Entry in Register of Members' Interests , 25.6.99: "Adviser on political affairs to Bell Pottinger Communications, providing advice only on new business and to named clients declared in section 3 below (direct continuation of my career with Lowe Bell before membership of the House). (£5,001-£10,000). Adviser to Bell Pottinger Consultants on corporate public relations, providing in particular advice on new business work for corporate, non-lobbying prospective clients (direct continuation of my career with Lowe Bell before membership of the House)."
[4] Select Committee on Agriculture, Sixth Report, Genetically Modified Organisms, 8.6.99, (3). Our emphasis.
[5] Telephone conversation, 28.7.99.
[6] Ibid.;
Monsanto's lobby firm pays key MP , Observer 4.7.99.
[7] Financial Times 25.4.94; ibd. 15.7.94; ibid. 29.7.96; ibid. 2.3.94, The Times 26.2.94.
[8] Mark Hollingsworth, The Ultimate Spin Doctor: The Life & Fast Times of Tim Bell, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997, pp.264-5; Financial Times, 23.1.99.
[9] Annual salary of well over £½m (Chime Communications plc Annual Report 1998, p.42.)
[10] The Times 11.3.95; ibid. 9.1.97.
[11] ASA Monthly Report, No. 99, 11.8.99, pp. 64-8. ( )
[12] BBC Online 17.2.99.
[13] BBC Online 14.2.99.
[14] The seeds of dispute, Financial Times 1.7.99; US soyabean market cornered, ibid. 28.7.99; Biotech companies stake out battleground , ibid. 28.7.99;
The seeds of wrath , Guardian 19.7.99.
Selling Suicide: farming, false promises and genetic engineering in developing countries by Andrew Simms, Christian Aid 5.99. See website at .
The seeds of wrath , Guardian 19.7.99.
[17] I'm modified, buy me: Marketing genetic engineering , Economist 17.1.98;
Labour MSP works for GM food firm , Daily Telegraph 7.7.99.
Analysis: It's business as usual , Guardian 22.2.99.
[19] Monsanto, in Paula Kepos (ed.), International Directory of Company Histories, vol.9, Detroit, London & Washington: St James Press, 1994, pp.355-7.
[20] Monsanto scores an own goal, Financial Times 23.2.99.
[21] BBC Online 27.5.99.
[22] Independent 20.7.99; Register of Members' Interests , 25.6.99.
[23] Church MP in GM row, Daily Express 8.8.99.
[24] Church ban on GM crop trials, Independent 11.8.99.
[25] Toughen lobby codes - Draper, BBC Online 5.7.99.

By Keith Fisher, August 1999.  (Pseudonym, Gillian Moody, used in Corporate Watch magazine.)


Lobbying, advertising and public relations

Bell Pottinger Communications

Association of Professional Political Consultants

Committee on Standards in Public Life (the Neill Committee)

Bartle Bogle Hegarty

Advertising Standards Authority

Future Foods exhibition , The Science Museum

Biotechnology companies



Government bodies

House of Commons Agriculture Select Committee

Central Science Laboratory

BioGuide . Guide to biotechnology support and regulations in the UK

Biotechnology Clusters . Report of a team led by Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science, August 1999

Church Commissioners for England

Non-government organisations

Christian Aid

Rowett Research Institute

Further web links:

Europe's stand on GM crops 'hitting the poor'
Let's do a Monsanto. 'The government says that it wants a 'great debate' about GM - we must call its bluff. George Monbiot.'
Debate on GM crops criticised
Bush's evangelising about food chills European hearts. 'The fight over GM crops exposes the weaknesses of globalisation.'
No evidence that GM will help solve world hunger. 'GM crops will not feed the world and could pose a considerable threat to poor farmers, warns a new report launched today by ActionAid.'
GM crops – going against the grain
Hi-tech crops 'will not save poor'
The covert biotech war . 'The battle to put a corporate GM padlock on our foodchain is being fought on the net.'
Independent on Sunday
GM food will not ease hunger
Independent on Sunday
Zambians starve in row over GM food
Independent on Sunday
Monsanto breaks bread with GM protesters
Advisers brand Blair's GM debate a sham
GM trial ruined by rogue gene strain
Scientists shocked at GM gene transfer
GM genes found in human gut
Whitehall admits GM foe was 'martyred'
GM firms the only winners at food talks summit
Prince Charles 'fuelling GM hysteria'
BBC incited eco-terror on GM drama website . '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.'
BBC:  Fields of Gold . 'A BBC One thriller about a GM crop gone wrong. '
BBC:  GM trial sites in the UK
Scientists infuriated by influence of protesters
Independent on Sunday
Ministers prepare to sell GM to the public
Science journal accused over GM article
GM damages environment but not pests, says study
Fields of ire . 'A BBC drama about a GM crop that goes wrong has come under fire from some scientists who say it distorts the facts. But, asks co-writer Alan Rusbridger, could the criticism have more to do with the interests of the biotech industry?'
New Statesman
You are wrong, Mr Blair . 'The Prime Minister believes in the unfailing beneficence of high tech. Colin Tudge, who has devoted his adult life to scientific study, wants him to think again.'  (Gourmet food-for-thought!)
Lobby group 'led GM thriller critics'
The conspiracy to undermine the truth about our GM drama . 'A BBC eco-thriller is at the centre of a furious row. Ronan Bennett, co-author of Fields of Gold, says that the attacks are orchestrated and groundless.'
Corporate phantoms . 'The web of deceit over GM food has now drawn in the PM's speechwriters...
GM crops are no more "science" than cars, computers or washing machines, and those opposing them are no more "anti-science" than people who don't like the Millennium Dome are "anti-architecture".'
Independent on Sunday
Sainsbury is attacked for GM share 'profits'
Independent on Sunday
Protest is an ally of science . 'Nullius in verba – "take nobody's word for it" – reads the motto of the Royal Society, where the Prime Minister last week made his speech to "speak up for science". It is a good description of good science, which challenges the consensus, investigates the truth, and subjects everything to rigorous and independent testing. It is also, of course, the very antithesis of spin.'
Independent on Sunday
GM threat to organic farming
Face the facts: scientists can get things wrong . 'What Tony Blair is doing is not so much riding to the defence of science as riding to the defence of industry.'

Independent on Sunday

GM crop protesters to be silenced
The fake persuaders . 'Corporations are inventing people to rubbish their opponents on the internet.'
Trade war fear as public resists GM food
Mexico's vital gene reservoir polluted by modified maize


Rice DNA finding will transform how the world is fed


Could GM rice feed the world? 'With the production of rice failing to keep up with population growth, the mapping of the rice genome, published today, could be a historic step towards finding a solution, writes Steve Connor.'
GM-free nations fall to Monsanto
New Delhi opens door to GM crops . 'World's biggest cotton grower allows new seed despite long battle by local farmers and academics.'
GM crops bound to 'escape', says EU
Agent Orange victims 'need help'
Anti-GM warrior Melchett joins PR firm that advised Monsanto
Mexico's GM corn shocks scientists . 'Researchers baffled as ancient variety of maize tests positive for modified organisms in area where no engineered crops are grown .'
Advisers warn GM crop tests 'not final piece in jigsaw'
Advisers warn GM trials are inadequate


Independent on Sunday

MPs 'misled' over extent of GM fish research


Sunday Times

GM fields spread new superweeds



UN agency backs GM food crops . 'Grassroots groups angered by conclusion that the poor and the hungry will benefit.'



'This is the path to disaster' . 'Clare Short is in the hot seat for funding GM crops in India.'



GM beans threaten farmers' meagre livelihoods


Financial Times

Lord Bell of Chime Communications


Independent on Sunday

Trials of GM maize threaten unique organic seed cache



Gene cures 'will not help Third World'



GM rice promoters 'have gone too far'



GM lobby takes root in Bush's cabinet . 'Biotech firms could have undue influence, say critics.'

Contrite GM firm pledges to turn over a new leaf



Mark Seddon: The irresistible rise of corporate influence over governments . 'During the early '80s I worked as a lobbyist and saw the opportunities opened up by privatisation.'

Food security and GM crops. 'Speech by David Bryer, Director of Oxfam GB, Seattle.'
Biotechnology in Crops: Issues for the developing world. 'Research paper for Oxfam GB.'


The Onion

New technological breakthrough to fix problems of previous breakthrough