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01 August 2002

Corngate lessons


Now the ripples from Corngate have dissipated, it's useful to look at what we can learn from the debacle.

First, some facts:

  • It appears there was no GE-sweetcorn planted
  • If there had been it would have been illegal
  • Novartis, the company concerned, acted impeccably with regard to its legal and moral responsibilities, letting the authorities know as soon as it had evidence that there was a risk that GE-seed might have been imported and planted
  • MfE, MAF and ERMA were caught flat-footed. There was no protocol in place to deal with the accidental planting of a GE-crop. Some staff took a while to come to grips with the issues, leaving a trail of email messages revealing their confusion
  • When the issue was resolved, a media release was issued but it attracted little interest
  • Most of the agri-business industry, the Royal Commission and interested politicians knew what had occurred and weren't concerned
  • Nicky Hager, author and conspiracy theorist, believed there had been a cover-up. He and his publisher, Craig Potton (a Green list candidate) thought it would help sales (and presumably their political cause) to publish a book on the topic in an election year
  • The media, who were given copies of the book on embargo, could see opportunities for themselves in aggressively pursuing the story. TV3, in particular, successfully used the controversial John Campbell interview of prime minister Helen Clark to increase its news ratings
  • Political opponents saw the story as a heaven-sent opportunity to attack the credibility of the prime minister, already wounded by her intemperate responses to Paintergate. Winston Peters increased his credibility by posing as the voice of reason. Bill English diminished his by siding with the Greens (what possible electoral allies did he expect to find in that direction?) and Jeanette Fitzsimons successfully garnered more votes from the anxious and confused.
  • The government sought to put the issue to rest by directing all government departments and agencies involved in the issue to reveal all. Within 10 days, the issue was largely dead and commentators were writing think-pieces about how badly the media had handled yet another complex scientific issue.

The lessons from all this are clear-cut, though we must admit that it's easy to be wise after the event - after all, not every potential ‘hot' issue attracts a Nicky Hager exposé.

  • MfE/MAF should have had a contingency plan in place to deal with the accidental planting of a GE-crop. Part of this would have been a PR/media strategy
  • This strategy would have involved a spokesperson going public with the issue as soon as the government had evidence that there could be substance to the claim. (It would not be sensible for MAF to go public with every allegation it gets on its 0800 hotline)
  • Given the time of the year, the issue would have attracted high levels of media attention throughout the media silly season. If the bureaucrats had their ducks in a row, the government would have been shown to be taking the issue seriously and acting in the national interest
  • If the bureaucratic ducks had not been quite in a row, it might have caused the government some temporary embarrassment, but the issue would have eventually played itself out in the public arena and been forgotten.
  • The media should not beat itself up for doing a poor job explaining the scientific issues underpinning Corngate. While it would be handy to have a few reporters with a 6th former's knowledge of scientific process, they should first analyse the ethics of using the embargoed release of a book to give saturation coverage to one side of an emotionally charged debate.

- Trevor Walton

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