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Genetically Modified Food - Policing the News

By Tony Gosling

On Monday 20th July, digital video footage sold to HTV by Bristol network ‘i-Contact’ made top news all day. Midday, 6.30 and 10.25 bulletins in the West of England led with film of, and interviews with, exasperated citizens pulling up Genetically Modified crops 3/4 of the population say are unsafe.

The next day HTV’s news editor, John Alcock, got a visit from the police. They wanted to know who and where the film came from and to take a copy of the original tape back to the station as evidence. John made it clear to them that they’d have to get a court order first and handed them a copy of the previous night’s broadcast.

Two weeks later the next filming by i-Contact was even more newsworthy:  The high court had said a GM test field next to an organic farm near Totnes in Devon was illegal but was powerless to destroy it.

On Monday 3rd August a group of activists decided to enforce the High Court decision by pulling up crops again and they tipped off i-Contact. This time though, cameraman Ben Edwards was stopped in his tracks.

Before he’d got any worthwhile film, before the protesters had even got to the offending field, Ben was arrested with the protesters on ‘suspicion of conspiracy to cause criminal damage’.Ben was kept in Totnes police station for the maximum 24 hours while a team from Trinity Road police station in Bristol searched his home.

Fellow i-Contact founder and ex-BBC radio reporter Tony Gosling was there when the police arrived. He checked their warrant then watched helplessly as the police went through Ben’s room earmarking the i-Contact computer, video tapes and piles of documents.

While the police were still there Tony called The Press Gazette who were immediately anxious to cover the story and he was interviewed for about ten minutes by Andrew Johnston. When Tony put the phone down a policemen asked him who he had been talking to and Tony told him. The article was subsequently pulled. Tony was warned by the policeman that by calling the press he could be "perverting the cause of justice". Andrew Johnston maintains that the non-running of the story was the Press Gazette’s own editorial decision.

Keeping a watchful eye on the police going through Ben’s room Tony then called HTV’s newsdesk. The news editor immediately sent a cameraman round. As he arrived outside the five policemen beat a hasty retreat with armfuls of Ben’s belongings, including the i-Contact computer and video tapes. HTV’s cameraman filmed them as they drove off. This and Ben’s overturned bedroom were on HTV news Tuesday evening.

With the loss of the computer i-Contact have been effectively put out of action. One of the services they had been providing was an environmental video e-mail list with an international list of subscribers.

Ben was released on Tuesday evening without charge on police bail and ordered to return to Totnes police station on September 24th. The police refused to return his £2000 Sony VX-1000 digital camcorder ensuring no more i-Contact coverage of the GM food issue.

When Tony contacted Inspector Patrick at Totnes, who signed the search warrant, he was told the camera would be retained for the foreseeable future as "evidence is prioritised". When asked how the camera could be evidence, the detective in charge of the case, Peter Gartrell, replied: "we don’t have facilities to copy the tape, so we need to keep the camera".

This episode raises serious questions about extension of police powers to journalists and the influence of the global food giants on police priorities. Monsanto and their colleagues at MAFF were clearly unhappy about the coverage HTV gave to the GM issue and seem to be involved in a conspiracy far more concerning than that alleged of the protesters.

After a big HTV story critical of GM experiments they decided not just to clamp down on the crop-pullers - but also to cover their tracks by clamping down on i-Contact, the messenger. It also looks possible that covert influence has been brought to bear to stifle critical discussion of the police raid even in the UK Journalists' weekly "The Press Gazette". Why is the kind of story that concerns so many journalists being kept from them?

The extent of police complicity in this successful attempt to manipulate perception of current affairs, and stifle discussion within the journalistic community must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

The extensive influence of global food corporations within the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food looks likely to be why their food safety committee recommends Genetically Modified (GM) food.

A recent World In Action documentary showed the committee’s spokesperson assuring the public that GM material could not enter human cells. This was followed by clear experimental evidence of GM material entering human cells.

Foot note - the equipment (computer and video recorder) was sucessfully reclaimed by Ben on the weekend of 12/13th December 1998