Rachael Turner MadLab Experiences in Journalism

Thank you very much Dan, that talk was brilliant, so I don't have to go through some of that now. I am from MadLab in Manchester. We run diybio-mcr. My background is because I have 15 years experience as a television producer and journalist. I worked for the BBC for about 10 years, here's one of the programs I did, it was science themed, it was about force feeding women. More recently I have been working at Al jazeera. I worked on a few space documentaries programs. Munchowser syndrome by proxy, dog breeding, and recently I was nominated for a Monte Carlo TV Award for Best Documentary. My experience is predominantely in broadcast media, I have worked on local, network and international news. I know lots of journalists in print media as well. I hope to cover all bases.

Yes, that's a direct quote.

Essentially, we have had a lot of coverage in the UK because, not the hackspace, but we are probably the biggest. We have a good online presence for one thing. Social media as well. We have a very active twitter stream and active website. We publish our own site, we have blogs, we have blog writers, we have 5000 people on our twitter stream. We are constantly turning out things to the public, we have message boards and things like that.

I am a journalist, so I don't see any story as super negative, but I will talk about two stories that we had in the press, one on the radio and one on television. You might have seen these, they could have been construed as negative, but that's the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. The first one that came to us is File on 4, it's for BBC Radio and it's available online and it's available around the world.

The approach that we got. we are interested in debate, is't that lovely, PCR machines, exclamation points. This is what we read: we're going to do a piece on bioterror and flu virus research. And we knew that, we knew that we were going to be portrayed as extreme. We're the only group that can kind of say these things, we weren't the right people, but we were going to be their people anyway, and it was. This is what showed up in the BBC website.. "growing concern about DIYbio.. FBI, oh there you are". Biological threat, all in the same sentence.

I've taken the transcripts online as well, and here's the audio line.


"It's perfectly doable and you can do it in the kitchen. What if this biotechnology was to fall into the wrong hands in the case of attacks?"

The first quote, the first one is.. I'm going to play from the intro, and, I chose this because the juxtaposition is funny. The start of the program ... what you will hear is that the presenter of the program, Jerry, you will hear the answer from one of our members say yeah it's great, but then you will hear someone talking about how we're going to kill everyone (oh great).

"One of britain's most dangerous laboratories where pathogens are investigated and genetically modified, if anything got out it could trigger an epidemic. Internationally, scientists are raising questions about experiments producing mutant strains of deadly viruses, but it's not only formal laboratories that follow biological experiments. We report as a growing number of amateur biologists that view viruses as a high tech hobby. How far can you go with replicating laboratories' experimetns? Very far, extracting your DNA and sending it out to get analyzed. Truth is, it's a lot like cooking. What about this knowledge falling into the wrong hands? I think we're not at all prepared for the danger of biological attack. If we had this attack, and the government would show, to be more prepared, I think both the government as a hwole.. because the public would say, why haven't you dealt with this?"

Basically, we got another scientist who, when they are coming to introduce MadLab, and we had a scientist saying.. they are talking about synthetic biology, which we don't do at MadLab currently. It doesn't seem to require any previous particular skills in biology, you don't have to know how it works, but you need to know about electroincs. They have managed to rebuild smallpox, polio, and they can reconstruct viruses, but it can now be done by scientists in the lab, or done by kids in the garage. Part 2: actuality in the class. Welcome to MadLab. So that was judicious editing there.

Another example is this time, where we had David Shukman from the BBC. He was the science editor or his assistant. David Shukman is for editing lunchtime use, internationally, bbc world, news 24, so it was a big deal. So we were preparing a feature about synthetic biology. "We're not involved in any synbio work." And they turned up.. and I did my digging about Shukman so that we knew what we were getting in for. So here's some of his previous work: an iceberg as big as manhattan, and this, war the threater of high technology weapons. So we knew what the thrust was going to be.

Here's a bit from that resulting news article, so you can see how these things play back. Look at what that thing in the background is. Dunno what that is.

"Technology.. as we reported last night, about making artificial genes with a range of applications from fuels."

"The relatively new field of synthetic biology is potentially dangerous and must be stopped. Technology as we reported last night involves taking artificial genes from fuel to medicine. The cost of experimenting is becoming cheaper. Our reporter has the story. In a backstreet in manchester has gathered to do something unimaginable even a ew years ago. These are amateur biologists that are making a machine that copies DNA, the device for playing with the codes of life. Thsi is a DIY for a normal person, so kinda garage science. That's what's different. It's people that are coming together and tinkereing in their own garage. This is the code of life, it's a big deal. The idea is to manipulate the DNA and go beyond to design new DNA. The technology is now easy to get. Highly sophisticated science equipment, which only institutions could afford, so now is tumbling in price, and anyone can pick it up. Here's a DNA synthesizer that can help you make artificial genes."

We discovered a few weeks later, and this was an online issue that we found. So, yes, this is an online response that we found. We don't know who this guy is, and it has like 5k views on youtube. It's Myles Power. It was after that report. What was interesting is that there were 100 comments on the BBC website saying the report was ridiculous. We kind of had to reply because it was obvious that it was ridiculous. This is quite funny.

"At the same time I was hoping I would show you around the city. At the moment we're at the.. look at that, that's kind of disgusting. Who would leave this out. Oh my god. In back alleys, scientists are doing science. You can pick this up andp eople can do PCR on themselves. Gene manipulation and PCR machines is disgusting. This guy on the BBC news was doing a report about dangerous science. Maybe he was saying something that was totally wank."


Those are some of the worst that we have had. We take the addage that it's good to be talked about, no matter what. You start the public debate, and you know, it wasn't too bad. It's not anything bad on us that they can't do their jobs.

Here are my list of items.. what are they asking, what are they really asking for? When you interview, get to the point and keep it simple. Soundbites are simple, in 5 second or 10 second increment. You can't go into a long explanation. You have to keep it to a single sentence. There is nothing stopping you from repeating your answers again and again to get your message across. It turns out that he generally doesn't appear in itnerviews because he keeps talking about safety, but they want to find the person who wants to talk about blowing things up.

Say yes and be helpful. I always say yes. You could decline an interview, sure, that's fine. But generally we get erquests from the UK which is domestic, so we say yes, and journalists talk to themselves. We had that BBC person, the local media knows about us, and it trickles through. We could have made a complaint about the File 4 one, and I was involved in the off-con complaint for my heavy something program, long story, but I knew I had a case against htat, but what's the point? And also, they will come back to us next time. We're based in Manchester, so we keep that relationship open at the end of the day. Tlak normally or else you will look weird.

We told them that, don't ask for questions ni advance. No journalist will give you questions in advance, unless you're a dictator of an African country that nobody has ever been to. The reason they do this is not to do this, anyone who is preparing the interview is going to be super boring and it will not look good on screen or in report. Journalists are a different species. They tend to get things wrong because they have a deadline or they don't understand. It's not necessarily you. Don't be disappointed if what you say isn't going to be faithfully represented on screen. They will take your most ridiculous soundbite, and if you know that, it's not always an issue. If you have people that have a relationship with journalists, then they will want to help you and make sure you do well as well. Unless you're diong a massive iiterview, you won't get your points across.

What we do a lot of is using the local media as our advocates, so they are quite easy to manipulate because they will take stories and say, look, we got daily deadlines, we only have stories about cats going missing our domestic abuse. You can give them good stories, and they will take htme, and they don't have the time, so they will usually take whatever. We talked with the manchester evening news about coming here.

"Madlab scientists invited to advise the FBI on DIY biology." Not strictly true, but it gets the point across. What's good about it is that it's always going to be bigger up the chain, so if you have a story, everoyne will look at the local stories. BBC does that. If they see your story at the local level, they might see the level go national. Another story went from this paper to the Daily Mail, which is the most read newspaper in the world (what the hell?). You can kind of really control your message basically, and that's it, thank you very much.