“More than 50 dangerous pesticides contaminate Britain’s food, official tests reveal. […] The revelation – in a survey of official testing results – will heighten concern about food contamination.”
Geoffrey Lean, the Independent on Sunday 27 February 2005

Geoffrey Lean, the environment editor of the Independent on Sunday, should not be a soft target for criticism. He has won numerous awards, including a special award for lifetime achievement in environmental journalism from the World Conservation Union, the Martha Gellhorn Prize, the Reuters-IUCN Media Award, and The British Press Award Scoop of the year. Yet finding faults in his report on the “more than 50 dangerous pesticides found in British food” is like shooting fish in a barrel. Big fish. In a small barrel. With a machine gun.

Lean’s piece uses a classic scare-mongering move: it points to the existence of a risk while downplaying or not even revealing the fact that the risk in question is extremely low. An obvious example of the dodginess of this move is the lightning rod marketer who turns up and says to you, “Did you know your house – yes your house – could be struck by lightning tomorrow, causing a fire which could kill you and all your family? Do you want to take that risk?”

Your answer would probably be yes, because you already know that your house could be struck by lightning, but you also know the risk is so low it’s not worth spending lots of money to avoid it. However, when someone confronts you with a risk you weren’t aware of, all this background information is not there, and the natural reaction is to be concerned. “Did you know your saucepans could give you Alzheimer’s?” Well, no, I didn’t. Gosh. Perhaps I should buy some safe ones…

When Lean tells us that British food contains “dangerous pesticides” without revealing the levels of these pesticides, he is making us more scared then we need be. It is like telling someone there is arsenic in the cup of coffee they have just drunk, when there is no more than a trace of the poison, not enough to have any significant effect on your body. Yet nowhere in his piece does Lean point to evidence that the levels of these pesticides are dangerously high.

Astonishingly, Lean actually pre-empts this criticism by claiming that “Many experts believe that there is no safe level for a cancer-causing chemical.” In other words, you should be scared by the mere presence of the harmful pesticides, irrespective of how low their levels are. But this claim is either patently false or not quite what it seems. For example, black pepper has been found to be a carcinogen, as have tannins, which are found in tea and coffee. Radon gas naturally occurs in varying concentrations, and only when these are high is there thought to be any cancer risk. Yet no credible expert believes that it is not safe to drink tea, grind black pepper on your pasta, or live somewhere where there are very low levels of radon.

This kind of frankly irresponsible reporting also allows the reporter to make a self-fulfilling prophesy. “The revelation … will heighten concern” wrote Lean. Well, yes it will, because he’s revealed it in a way designed to heighten concern. It will make people more worried, but it shouldn’t do so. Lean, however, has made it sound as though heightened concern is a reasonable and right response to the news. Readers are thus even more misled.

It is depressing that a serious newspaper like the Independent on Sunday should resort to such flagrant scare-mongering, but unfortunately it is not alone. Pick up almost any newspaper and, if a risk has been identified, the story will stress the mere presence of the risk and not its actual level. By doing that, it makes us more worried than we should be, but without actually lying. The sin here is a sin of omission. But however you look at it, the result is at least deceptive, if not an actual deception.

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