GENET archive


9-Misc: UK Minister wants media to end 'scare stories' on GM crops

                                  PART I
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Hutton wants media to end 'scare stories' on GM crops
SOURCE: The Independent, UK, by Andrew Grice, Colin Brown and Katy
DATE:   8 Aug 2005

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Hutton wants media to end 'scare stories' on GM crops

A cabinet minister has revealed that the Government is launching a charm
offensive to stop the media reporting scare stories about GM crops.

The campaign led by John Hutton, the Cabinet Office Minister, led
environmental pressure groups to warn last night against the Government
"softening up" the media for controversial scientific developments. The
EU Commission will today approve the use in animal feed of a GM maize
that allegedly showed a link with low liver weight in tests on rats.
Anti-GM campaigners said agriculture ministers would now greenlight the
maize for use in food, lifting a ban on its EU import.

Tony Blair dispatched Mr Hutton to talk to media chiefs because he fears
Britain could miss out on economic and social benefits amid public
hostility to GM.

Mr Hutton said he wanted to persuade the media to report sensitive issues
such as GM crops and foods in a "more balanced" way to prevent crucial
decisions being based on emotion rather than scientific opinion. But he
insisted he was not trying to pressure the media.

Helen Hodder, of Friends of the Earth, said: "Rather than telling the
media what they should think, the Government should be listening to what
people want."

                                  PART II
-------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  John Hutton: 'The media are entitled to be sceptical but the
        scientific context is important'
SOURCE: The Independent, UK, by Andrew Grice
DATE:   8 Aug 2005

------------------- archive: -------------------

John Hutton: 'The media are entitled to be sceptical but the scientific
context is important'
The Monday Interview: Cabinet Office Minister

When the Cabinet Office Minister John Hutton gave a presentation to the
Cabinet last month on his drive to cut government red tape, he joked that
before the meeting he had to slim a 100-page report from his officials
about the initiative to just three pages.

Promising a bonfire of unnecessary regulations is one of oldest tricks in
the Whitehall book, straight out of Yes Minister. But when Tony Blair
promoted Mr Hutton to the Cabinet on his 50th birthday the day after the
May general election, he ordered him to get to grips with the issue in a
wider and more systematic way than any previous government by redefining
the public debate over "risk".

And the Prime Minister told Mr Hutton to try to persuade the media to
adopt a more balanced approach to the potential risks from scientific and
technological advances. Mr Blair believes Britain (and Europe) is falling
behind in biotechnology, the "industry of the future", and may miss out
on its huge economic and social benefits because the debate is being
dictated by "conspiracy theorists".

So Mr Hutton, flanked by the Government's chief scientific and medical
officers, has had talks with broadcasters on how to ensure people are
given the maximum information about future risks with minimum alarm.
Talks with newspaper editors will follow. Other issues are more
sensitive. Mr Blair is famously pro-GM and is worried decisions about it
are being driven by emotion rather than science.

As a loyal Blairite, Mr Hutton is happy to raise the Prime Minister's
banner. In his first newspaper interview in his post-election role, he
agrees intervention by politicians in the media is "difficult territory"
but insists a mature and open debate about the risks and challenges
facing the nation will help it to make correct decisions.

The former Health minister confesses the Government almost wasted
millions by installing temporary screening equipment at ports of entry
during the Sars epidemic in China two years ago in response to a media
frenzy. It made the right call, but only just.

And he says during the scare over the MMR vaccine, the health of children
was damaged because the media gave so much prominence to the views of
Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who raised the alarm over a possible link
with autism, now dismissed. "You had 99.9 per cent of scientific opinion
on one side and .1 per cent on the other, but their views were given
equal value and prominence," Mr Hutton says.

"I am not finger-wagging at the media. I accept they have a difficult
job.They are entitled to challenge government scientific advice. They are
entitled to be sceptical. But the context is important and that's what we
have to talk to the media about.

He does not want to rerun the debate over MMR or GM but to ensure "we are
very careful about the way such issues are presented", for example, over
advances in genetics and stem-cell research. He says: "We haven't got it
right on GM. We have effectively closed research and economic
opportunities for the UK. There is now no research being done into GM in
the UK. That is an economic blow. 'Frankenstein food' makes a great
headline but it's a travesty of the truth."

He hopes to set up a "better dialogue" between the media and the
independent scientific experts who advise the Government to ensure "a
better balance" in the debate. Will his mission concern the way the media
covers the new terrorist threat facing Britain? He has no criticism of
the coverage since 7 July but admits concern about contradic-tory
speculation and cannot resist a dig at journalists who had accused the
Government of exaggerating the al- Qa'ida threat but now warn that
further attacks are inevitable.

The lesson he draws from the past few weeks is encouraging: that people
were sensible about the terrorist threat. "We have to try to minimise the
risk but there are risks you can't exclude," he says. "People know that."

Mr Hutton's promotion to cabinet rank came as no surprise. Although he
represents Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, he is a member of the so-called
"North-east mafia" of ultra-loyal Blairites. For 10 years the former law
lecturer shared an office with Stephen Byers at Newcastle Polytechnic. He
entered Parliament with Mr Byers and another member of the club, Alan
Milburn, in 1992.

Since then, he seems to have followed Mr Milburn around. He succeeded him
as Health minister when Mr Milburn became Secretary of State for Health.
In May, he succeeded Mr Milburn as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
in charge of the Cabinet Office. And he and Mr Milburn shared a flat in
Kennington for 10 years. But despite his belief in open government, Mr
Hutton refuses to say who did the washing-up.

He is open enough to admit another drive to cut red tape sometimes
produces "rolling-eyes syndrome". Yet he manages to bring this driest of
subjects to life. "The Government traditionally gets caught between a
rock and a hard place. You get accused of dithering and incompetence if
there is a problem and 'Something must be done'. When you intervene, you
are accused of meddling and being a nanny state."

After complaints by industry about unnecessary burdens, the Government is
to cut the number of inspectorates from 11 to four. "There is a risk that
the better-regulation agenda becomes a process-driven exercise that
doesn't change the culture of Whitehall," he says. "It's not about
cutting regulations by 5 or 10 per cent. It's not about lowering
environmental standards or rights at work. But globalisation is producing
pressures. We need a modern, mature debate about when governments should
and shouldn't intervene. It's at the heart of the relationship between
the state and the individual." Mr Hutton agrees much of the red tape in
Britain now emanates from the European Union. "It has had a regulatory
culture. It has to move beyond the starting point that legislation and
regulation is needed. Regulation at EU level should be a last resort, not
a first resort."

His other main responsibility is to drive forward the Government's public
service reforms. The Cabinet Office can be a tricky berth, since
Whitehall departments are suspicious of initiatives from the centre and
guard their independence jealously. So does the Treasury, which also
oversees the reforms.

But Mr Hutton seems well-qualified for the task after six years at the
Department of Health. "At the centre of this agenda is one proposition:
providing the best possible public services. We shouldn't excuse bad
performance or brush it under the carpet. In some cases, we will need to
change the organisation providing the service."

His mantra is "quality and choice" and he dismisses as patronising the
criticism that people do not want choice, merely a good local school or
hospital. Consumers expect choice and certainly exercise it when given
the option of three or four hospitals to get their treatment more
quickly, he says.

He thinks the best of the public sector lags behind the best in the
private. So the challenge for a progressive centre-left party - he is
happy to describe himself as as a "social democrat" - is to make the case
again for taxpayer-funded services that ensure the poor get similar
opportunities to those who pay to go private. His Blairite prescription
may cause some tensions with the Brown camp, which is cautious about
another dose of market-driven reforms, mainly in education, which Mr
Blair wants to see before leaving office.

"You can't have no schools or hospitals provided. Everyone understands
that. There is a need for continuity. That is different to some parts of
the private sector."

He admits there are probably still too many performance targets set by
the Government but insists it was right to set them to lever up the poor
standards of service inherited in 1997.

Mr Hutton says things are getting better, even if people will not
necessarily thank the Government. Ask people what they think about the
state of the National Health Service, he says, and the answer will be
broadly in line with what they think of the Government. But ask them
about their local hospitals, and the response is more favourable.

The lesson he draws from his long stint in trenches at the Health
Department is that reform is an endless process that will never be
completed: when one problem is solved, another demand will arise.

He wants to see public service reforms entrenched in Whitehall as well as
on the front line. He hopes Sir Gus O'Donnell, the incoming head of the
Civil Service, will up the pace. But he rebuffs calls for a civil service
Act to guard the independence of officials and provide controls over
politically appointed special advisers. Asked if he supports the idea, he
replies: "Oh dear, is that the time? The legislative programme is very

The CV
- BORN: 6 May 1955
- EDUCATED: Westcliff High School, Essex; Magdalen College, Oxford
- CAREER: Senior law lecturer, Newcastle Polytechnic, 1981-92; MP for
Barrow-in-Furness since 1992; Parliamentary private secretary to Margaret
Beckett 1997-98; junior Health minister 1998-1999, Minister of State for
Health 1999-2005; Cabinet Office minister and Chancellor of the Duchy of
Lancaster since May 2005
- FAMILY: Three sons and one daughter from first marriage, dissolved in
1992; remarried in 2004


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