My old boss, Prof Lord Krebs, was on Farming Today (8 mins in) being interviewed by Anna Hill on Wednesday morning. Lord Krebs provided a masterclass in sticking to the facts, despite some niggling questions from Ms Hill, and getting the message across very clearly.
The message was that the ‘too-early-to-tell-really-but-the-figures-are-out-there’ results from the Badger cull trials seem to show no beneficial impact of culling on bovine TB (yet?). That isn’t how the NFU has portrayed the results but the NFU wasn’t prepared to argue the results with a proper scientist it seems.
But I think that the interview also demonstrates Ms Hill’s leaning towards the ‘farming’ side of the case, which is the non-scientific side of the case I’m afraid to say (and I believe she has form in this respect – see here as an example).
Anna Hill said of Lord Krebs ‘He believes that figures showing a fall in bovine TB cases in areas where the current cull has taken place are not enough to claim a success’ which is an example of the interviewer expressing a strong opinion on what the real position is of the facts which are being discussed before she introduces the interviewee. It’s the broadcasting equivalent of ‘leading the witness’ – it’s leading the listener. We’ll come back to it. And because this is a recorded programme, I imagine the introductory words were chosen after Lord Krebs had set out the real figures (because otherwise you don’t know what you are introducing).
Anna Hill introduces Lord Krebs by saying ‘I asked Lord Krebs why he had accused the NFU of deliberately misleading the farming community about the figures’ rather than ‘I asked Lord Krebs to tell me what he thought the figures showed’. She starts the interview by pre-judging what the facts are and asking the interviewee why he had done something that sounds like a bad thing.
So before we hear Lord Krebs, we’ve been told that the figures show a fall in bovine TB and Lord Krebs has been a bit mean to the poor old NFU! That’s how the scene was set.
Now, because John (I’m a bit fed up calling him Lord Krebs) knows his stuff, is a very clear thinker, and is unlikely to be rattled by Ms Hill, gives a very clear exposition of the fact (I assume they are facts, I haven’t checked, but someone would have shouted by now if they were wrong) that in Somerset the number of reactor herds increased from 28 to 29 (no decline there) and in Gloucestershire they increased from 17 to 28 (big increase there).
Ms Hill goes on to say ‘Well there are statistics and statistics’ as though she has a feeling that Lord Krebs is hiding something (and therefore puts that thought in the listener’s mind where I suggest it wouldn’t be otherwise), and brings up the number of reacting individuals. She cites the figures from Somerset as showing a reduction in number of herds affected as though that is her and the NFU’s trump card against Lord Krebs’s interpretation. But John comes back with the information that in Somerset the number of reacting individuals did decrease from 246 (or 248 – Hill and Krebs differ by 2 – it doesn’t make any difference) to 208 (that’s by 16%) and then adds that in the ‘comparison area’ numbers also decreased (from 2354 to 2164 – a fall of 8%). He then goes on to Gloucestershire, where the number of individuals went up in the core area (91 to 161, up by 77%) but went down in the comparison area (2287 to 1917, down by 16%) strongly suggesting the trial culling wasn’t doing any good, and might be doing some harm.
So let’s go back to Anna Hill’s introduction to the interview. She said ‘He believes that figures showing a fall in bovine TB cases in areas where the current cull has taken place are not enough to show it’s a success’ and I imagine those words were recorded after the interview. The interview disclosed that of four sets of figures (Somerset and Gloucestershire; herds and individuals) three out of the four figures went up. So why introduce the interviewee with words that might suggest to any sleepy farmer or townie that the figures showed a decrease – only one in four did (and even then the control data showed a decline too (albeit a smaller one)).
I think it’s a bit shoddy really. It’s certainly possible to believe that the interviewer is rather biased in her view, and that is an opinion that is growing on me, although it could be that Ms Hill chose her words carelessly or through an attempt to sensationalise the story, rather than from any desire to mislead.
Journalists do put interviewees under pressure sometimes and that’s a fair technique (I’ve given some of my best interviewees on the Today programme when John Humphrys has got a bit shirty with me, for instance) but I feel that this interview was framed in terms of Lord Krebs having to defend his position and the NFU, who appear to be in the wrong, getting off pretty much scot-free. That’s not quite right – even for a programme called Farming Today. It’s supposed, I think, to be about farming, not about how farmers are always right even when they are wrong.
It is this type of approach on Farming Today that makes me listen to it less and less as I find myself analysing the technique of the interview and feeling unhappy with it. What do you think?
An alternative way to end the piece might have been to criticise the NFU for getting the figures wrong? Or to say something like ‘It’s too early to say, but things aren’t looking good for Defra who caved in to pressure from the NFU to conduct these badger culls, despite the science suggesting they might not work, as the preliminary figures, and they are preliminary, suggest that the cull isn’t working. Maybe the scientists were right all along and the NFU were wrong. Maybe Defra picked the wrong side – if so, questions should be asked’.