'The farmers here like genetic modification' was the opening line of a report from India about GM cotton by Pallab Ghosh, the BBC's science correspondent. Ghosh was reporting from the State of Gujarat. Nowhere in his report did Ghosh mention that the harvest of Monsanto's GM cotton in Gujarat, as elsewhere in India, had been so disappointing that a six-member panel set up by the State government concluded 'it is unfit for cultivation and should be banned in the State'.
Another report from India by Pallab Ghosh was about the GM 'protato' - a potato genetically modified to produce increased protein. Ghosh's report made headline news in the UK, and was picked up in other media reports around the world.
Pallab Ghosh's report claimed the GM potato was 'expected to be approved in India within six months'. But the Indian press has reported that, 'no request has so far been received from developers for field trials or commercialisation of GM potato and... it cannot be approved in the current year.' This directly contradicts Ghosh's report.
The key claim in Ghosh's report was about the protato's ability to counter malnutrition, but this had already been exposed as fraudulent in the Indian press 3 months earlier, in March 2003. (GM Potato Cannot Solve Malnutrition Problems : Experts) The publicity generated by Ghosh's report has caused irritation even amongst pro-GM scientists in India. Prof. C Kameswara Rao, calls the GM potato a 'dismal product' and points out that far from being approved within months the protato is 'unlikely to see the light of the day in this decade'. (of Release of GE Potato in India is Premature)
So why did the BBC not check out any of the claims that formed the basis of this headline news story? The answer would seem to lie with Pallab Ghosh, whose story hung purely upon the discredited claims of the Indian bureaucrat Manju Sharma and claims about the potential of GM crops by the chief executive of Dupont in India, Dr Balvinder Singh Khalsi.
This is not the first time that Ghosh has reported a story of value to the GM lobby but which fell seriously below the normal standards of BBC journalism. It was Ghosh who was behind the BBC's reports that the BMA was reviewing its position on GM crops and food. Ghosh's claims again hit the headlines but the BMA issued a press release the same day which showed the content of the story could not have been checked with them. The BMA labelled parts of Ghosh's report 'wrong' and 'totally incorrect'.
Stories where the central facts have been subjected to so little critical scrutiny might seem surprising from the current Chairman of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), a group of 800 science journalists and communication specialists in the UK. In that role Ghosh has commented critically, in evidence given before the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, on the standard of reporting to be found even in science journals.
Ghosh has also reported critically on Dr Arpad Pusztai's work. This is what Dr Pusztai had to say about Ghosh's coverage: '[he] came up to Aberdeen after the RS [Royal Society] and the Science and Technology Committee's sitting [in 1999] and he was all smiles and extremely accommodating but when the interview went out on the BBC he twisted everything out of context. So much so that I decided not to have anything more to do with the BBC.'
One interesting point about Ghosh's role at the ABSW is that it brings him into contact with the ASBW's President, Dame Bridget Ogilvie. Dame Bridget is the Vice Chairman of the highly controversial pro-GM lobby group Sense about Science.
She was also a co-signatory to a letter attacking the BMA's position on GM crops authored by the controversial GM supporter, Sir Peter Lachmann FRS, who The Guardian identified as the person who phoned the editor of The Lancet, Dr Richard Horton, in what, according to Dr Horton, was an effort to intimidate him out of publishing Pusztai's research.
Both Sense about Science and Lachmann featured in Ghosh's BMA report. Indeed, Ghosh's on-air report appears to have left the impression that Lachmann was a spokesman for, rather than a critic of, the BMA. This led the biotech company Bayer to subsequently quote what Lachmann had said in a submission to the government in which they identified him (Lachmann) as an official at the BMA. The online version of Ghosh's report was amended to clarify the fact that Lachmann was 'a vocal proponent of GM'.
Interestingly, at the end of October 2003 Ghosh made no reference to Sense About Science when helping to break the story that 114 scientists, ostensibly led by Derek Burke, had written to Tony Blair to complain about a lack of government support for GM, particularly in the recently completed official Public Debate on GM. While Ghosh did note that Dame Bridget Ogilvie was amongst the signatories, it was in fact Sense about Science, to which both Ogilvie and Burke connect, which had organised the letter as part of its campaign to lobby the government to ignore the critical views on GM crop commercialisation expressed in the Public Debate.
Ghosh is one of several UK science correspondents whose coverage of the GM issue has led to accusations of bias and an over-cosy relationship with the science establishment and its lobbyists. Others include Mark Henderson at The Times, Steve Connor at The Independent and Andy Coghlan at New Scientist.