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15 July 2002

HOBBS DENIES INDUSTRY INVOLVED IN GE POLICY

The role of Novartis's PR company in corn-gate continues to attract attention: "papers issued by the Environment Ministry detailing plans for the GE import rule announcement in December 2000 have renewed concerns about the level of industry involvement"

1. Hobbs denies industry involved in GE policy
2. A bright-red Clark pure gold for TV viewers
3. QUOTE OF THE DAY from NZ

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1. Hobbs denies industry involved in GE policy

Dominion Post, July 16, 2002

Environment Minister Marian Hobbs is angry at suggestions the food industry may have influenced a Government press statement about GE seed safeguards.

The Government has rejected allegations by Seeds of Distrust author Nicky Hager that the safeguards were introduced to protect corn crops thought to be potentially GE-contaminated.

But papers issued by the Environment Ministry detailing plans for the GE import rule announcement in December 2000 have renewed concerns about the level of industry involvement.

An e-mail apparently sent from ministry communications manager Kathy McNeil to other officials before the announcement noted: "Industry seems comfortable with the media release, though Norrie did ask if we need to mention sweetcorn."

Norrie Simmons, now a Four Winds Communications consultant, was working for Novartis (now called Syngenta), which distributed the corn at the centre of the scare.

Yesterday, Ms Simmons did not return calls.

Ministry secretary Barry Carbon said yesterday that it appeared Ms Simmons - former head of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand - openly tried to influence the Government's handling of the import rule by drafting a press release for the ministry that she wanted Ms Hobbs to use.

The draft, which the ministry said was unsolicited and ignored, pushed the line "we cannot hold back the (GE) tide".

Green co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said the papers showed Ms Hobbs had "presented the story in her press release . . . in exactly the way the industry PR recommended".

Ms Hobbs denied any knowledge of industry input into the Government's announcement, saying her press releases were written in her office.

She said it would be "totally inappropriate" for Ms Simmons to have any input into any Government statement, or see one before its release.

"That's not her job.

"I would imagine their job is to advise us what their people think about an issue . . .

"Post-election I will really want to work through with them some very clear protocols."

Mr Carbon said it was "good manners" for affected parties to be informed of a release before it went out. "But whether or not it's appropriate to ask for their input is debatable."

It was unclear if industry input had been sought, but the e-mail had left him feeling uncomfortable.

"It begs the question, what would happen if industry wasn't comfortable, doesn't it?"

However, he rejected the Greens' claim Ms Simmons's draft had been used.

"The whole thesis in that thing is to establish a climate that says a little bit of contamination doesn't matter, which is precisely the opposite direction to the one the Government ended up taking."

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2. A bright-red Clark pure gold for TV viewers

The Southland Times (New Zealand) July 12, 2002, Friday

LET'S get the obvious Corngate pun out of the way right now: Helen Clark with a cob on is compulsive viewing. It's not often we get to see a top politician truly losing it on TV. Even rarer is the politician who, having lost it, then fails to find it again over subsequent interviews. Miss Clark's great scone-do on TV3 (Wednesday night) and her further seethings in every other interview programme have been gripping. Put aside your feelings about GE and your inevitable confusion about whether the corn was contaminated or not. A politician caught without a spin is TV gold -- and not half bad for democracy, either. Whether or not the publisher of the Corngate book and TV3 -- which had advance dibs on the scandal -- behaved entirely fairly to the PM, we did get a revealing, unrehearsed glimpse into the woman under pressure. It's always a telling sign of inner psychology when an exulted personage starts talking about him or herself in the third person. Suddenly, Miss Clark -- who prides herself on telling officials to "call me Helen" -- was talking about "the prime minister" and "she." Not once or twice but compulsively. Faced with John Campbell in full, righteous gush, her only possible lifeboat was a touch of humility. "Sorry, John, I simply don't remember that level of detail." But no. We got choleric references to "ambush" and "unethical journalism." Campbell found himself "prime ministered" to a standstill. He pressed on valiantly but could not budge Miss Clark from her default setting of "ambush" rage. For anyone who missed this excruciating joust, it came during a pre-recorded interview, made after Campbell had put together a special report on the embargoed book by peace researcher Nicky Hager into the release of -- maybe or maybe not -- genetically modified corn seed into our key horticultural zones. As is usual, reporters were given early copies of the book to prepare their items for its Wednesday morning release. Miss Clark wasn't told that, in agreeing to discuss procedure over the release of GE for this programme, she would be quizzed over a specific instance.

 Nor was she told the instance was the subject of a new Hager book. The ethics of this will be haggled over endlessly elsewhere. Here, we're only concerned with whether viewers got value for the time invested watching TV3. And they did -- both as TV viewers and as thinking voters. Ambushing politicians with scandals, even powerful, controlling politicians like Miss Clark, may not be strictly fair but it does viewers a great service. For once, they get a PE-free response -- free of political engineering. It was clear Miss Clark knew what Campbell was asking her about. She simply did not have the detail at her fingertips and used this as an excuse for refusing to answer any questions about it. What answers she gave were hedged about with words like "advice" and "intention." But, overall, she behaved as if Campbell had a cheek expecting her to answer questions at all, without giving her time in advance to rehearse her lines. This is never a good look for a politician -- but specially not for Miss Clark, who projects an all-knowing air, and is extremely accessible to journalists. Anyone tempted to give Miss Clark the benefit of the doubt would have already seen, on TV3 News, footage of her being similarly snippy with an Australian journalist who had the temerity to ask her about Paintergate. She ended up walking out. The hapless Aussie had only asked about a thing that has been in the news here for months and about which Miss Clark has commented in the past. But between the Campbell and the Aussie interviews, you got the impression Miss Clark wants to decide what she will talk about in advance. She does not care to leave that up to the media. The crowning delight -- like an ingenious twist in a drama programme -- was when Campbell wound up the programme by reporting that, despite her umpteen demands, Miss Clark had refused to be re-interviewed. It's a mark of what an extraordinary television event this all was that even Judy Bailey reached for her Murray Mexted thesaurus and pronounced Clark "incandescent."

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3. QUOTE OF THE DAY

The Southland Times (New Zealand) July 12, 2002

"If I was in Australia I would be able to say... the shit hit the fan. But, I'm not in Australia so I'm going to say there was a heightened state of activity within the bureaucracy." -- new Environment Secretary Barry Carbon translates from his native 'Strine for the benefit of Newzild listeners at a briefing on the GM corn scare

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"Personally, I'd like to see all the first generation of transgenic crops (that were produced by the early & rather primitive techniques we had available in the late 1980s) thrown out & to start afresh with a consumer-led drive to agricultural improvement." - Professor Denis J Murphy, Biotechnology Unit, School of Applied Sciences, University of Glamorgan, Treforest, Cardiff CF37 1DL, United Kingdom

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