The BBC and driven grouse shooting

The week before last there was copious coverage of driven grouse shooting before, on and after the inglorious 12th in the media – quite a lot of that was on BBC channels. This post is about how the BBC handled it and whether or not they were fair.  I’d give the BBC only 5 out of 10 overall – but see what you think.

There is no doubt that the volume of coverage greatly aided the public awareness of the e-petition to ban driven grouse shooting and the importance of publicity cannot be underestimated.

Here is a broadly chronological, by time of broadcast, review of the BBC coverage of which I am aware and in some of which I took part.

Farming Today – early morning 11 August, BBC Radio 4

I have a low opinion of the integrity of Farming Today and that was further reduced by my experience of them in this case.  Because of the possibility of being stitched up in the editing process I recorded all of the interview on my mobile phone as I sat in the BBC Radio Northampton studio talking to a far away interviewer and a far away Andrew Gilruth of GWCT.  The transcript of what I said is reproduced here – I’m very glad I have the experience and the wit to have recorded the interview. Would you have thought to do the same?

The piece started with an incredibly sympathetic recording of a jolly visit to a grouse moor and then the edit of what I said allowed me c150 words to put the opposite case.  I was shocked by the unfair and biased edit – and so glad I had recorded what was actually said.

I shall complain formally to the BBC over this and I will never again agree to do a recorded interview with Farming Today because I just do not trust them.

See here for just a few previous examples Lord Krebs on badgers, 16 October 2015; More on the Game Fair, 2 August 2015; Still in denial 18 January 2012.

The World at One – didn’t happen, 11 August, BBC Radio 4

Andrew Gilruth and I were scheduled to do a rematch, live, on the Radio 4 flagship programme The World at One later that day.  As I headed into London to get to the studio I got a phone call (c0930) from WatO (shouldn’t it be TWatO?) saying the piece had been dropped because we’d been on Farming Today. This was very irritating – I had already driven to Northampton, I’d already bought my train ticket, and I was looking forward to an unedited discussion in front of a large radio audience. I was told that WatO wouldn’t use us because the two us us had already been on. The BBC is not remotely joined up – no-one on Farming Today or on WatO had raised this possibility before – if they had I would have chosen WatO every time – a bigger audience, possibly a more sympathetic audience and a live unedited discussion! No contest!

The Today programme – 12 August, BBC Radio 4, Packham v Botham

This was prime time, prime audience stuff.  The fact that Botham was halting and misleading can only have helped us get more signatures for our e-petition.  Chris knows what he was talking about and got over a lot of good points – Botham attacked the RSPB and Chris Packham. Nick Robinson seemed overwhelmed by having two famous non-politicians at once on the programme and rather than let them slug it out, kept interrupting. Not great interview technique, particularly because he didn’t appear to know anything about the subject. And the BBC used the opportunity to air the whole business of Chris being outspoken about wildlife issues – this took up valuable time but will allow the BBC to tell the Countryside Alliance that these points were aired in front of a large audience (but it took time away from a debate on driven grouse shooting).  But because Chris is a star, and Botham isn’t when it comes to wildlife (a former cricketing great of course), this was like gold dust for our e-petition.

BBC online news story – posted 12 August, corrected 15 August(?) and still there.

This is an online news story about the ructions over the Inglorious 12th – I wrote about it here because what appeared painted supporters of change as ‘animal rights activists’ (cf eco-zealots) and the shooting brigade (in whose number are wildlife criminals) as ‘countryside groups’.

All praise to Claire Marshall who commented on this blog and accepted responsibility (although it sounds that it wasn’t actually her fault) and got it changed online. But, as with Botham’s error over BTO surveys, the words once heard (or read) are rarely unheard (or unread) – the damage is done.

And the original words were used, as I wrote, to introduce me in several BBC local radio programmes – so they were probably used all over the place before being corrected and the corrected version was probably never uttered on air.  As Claire commented ‘I accept this criticism as entirely valid. Late and lax editing‘.

BBC local radio programmes 11 and 12 August

I think I did five of these (York, Leeds, 3 Counties, Northampton and Cumbria).  All were live, all were pretty easy really, although some had the unfortunate uncorrected words (see above) used to introduce the pieces.  I don’t really have any complaints – the interviewer usually doesn’t know much about the subject (how could they?) and providing you sound interesting and keep talking you can get a lot of information out there.  Radio York was the most challenging – and probably brought the best out of me. Radio Cumbria has quite a long interview with someone who makes money out of shooters, a short bit of me, and then a long piece of the Chair of the Moorland Association going on about money again which was a bit unbalanced, but hey! I’m not complaining. It was live and it wasn’t Farming Today.

Countryfile – 14 August – still on iplayer

Countryfile gave quite a lot of time to the issue of driven grouse shooting and covered it pretty well – again I have no complaints.  Many at the Bird Fair said that they had enjoyed it and that it was a nice change to see Countryfile treating grouse shooting and moorland management as an issue rather than a stroll in a wildlife haven (see here and here for previous puff-jobs).  And many said that it was good to be able to laugh whole-heartedly at Duncan Thomas and to see Andrew Gilruth looking a bit uncertain and shifty on TV.  Well, at least they turned up for this unlike at the Bird Fair.

It’s difficult to know whether the long conversations I had with the researcher on the programme shifted the Countryfile position from what seemed to be ‘aren’t you a load of nutters attacking a traditional money earning country pursuit’ to its eventual neutral position of ‘there’s quite a lot to get your head round here’ – but I think it probably did.  The fact that the said researcher had a copy of Inglorious and I could keep saying ‘look at page X’ didn’t do our case any harm either.

Hen Harrier tagging at Geltsdale on BBC Radio 4 PM and TV 6 o’clock news – 18 August

I didn’t see the TV piece and I only caught some of the radio piece so I can’t really say – although others have said that it couldn’t have been better, so maybe the moorland shooting community are moaning like hell about it – haven’t noticed that though.

So, things got better and better as the coverage went on – if it had stopped at that awful Farming Today programme then I would still be livid.

The BBC got a grouse moor owner’s wife to review their countryside coverage a few years ago (what she wrote, who she is) and I think that review has coloured BBC coverage of shooting ever since.  In addition, the BBC has very few journalists who know much about the issues of nature conservation and the environment. Their idea of balance is letting everyone have the same amount of time – there is little challenge of falsehoods or errors. That is hardly balance in the real world – letting one side tell the truth and giving the other side the same amount of time to lie (I exaggerate to make the point and I hope you get the point).  It is not the job of programme makers to make everyone look good, whether what they say is correct or incorrect.  That’s why the more live programmes there are, particularly with feisty speakers like Chris Packham (and I guess myself) the better.

The BBC needs to raise its game generally on environmental matters – it isn’t doing well enough and it should do much better.  Overall, on the coverage discussed above, I would have to give the BBC 10 out of 10 for the amount of coverage – but then that’s because our e-petition was making the news (and that wasn’t an accident). But I would only give the BBC 5 out of 10 for the way they covered the issues  – Farming Today was the lowest point and Countryfile was the highest.


19 Replies to “The BBC and driven grouse shooting”

  1. There can be no greater condemnation of the BBC than someone saying “Countryfile was the high point”. Not because of the quality of the coverage on Countryfile, but because Countryfile itself is a bottom of the barrel show in terms of factual quality and if it was only Countryfile which was the high point and to get it right then the rest of the BBC has fallen very far indeed.

  2. I agree that the BBC seems to be mistaking balanced air time for balanced argument. As with Brexit, this tendency to frame everything as a debate rather than to acknowledge that there are often big areas of undeniable fact and only lesser grey areas just isn’t doing wider truths any favours. Like Random22 above, I think you are being rather generous about Countryfile. It’s rooted in the past.

  3. Pre about 2004 the BBCs quality was quite good. Nowadays I would class it as very poor indeed. I would give them about 3 out of 10. The scientific knowledge of their interviewers and the like is virtually zero, and they seem very intent on producing a lot of hype most of he time rather than making the effort to be sure their facts are correct. The only exception to all this is of course Chis Packham who shines out like a star because of his scientific knowledge and lack of hype. These days as far as the BBC is concerned it is a case of “how are the mighty fallen.”

  4. Mark – perhaps you just need to be more upbeat! A petition at 117,000+++ is not something to be sniffed at, and represents a huge amount of hard work. Overall the BBC coverage has engaged thousands of people who had no idea that raptor persecution was taking place. The subject has become much more prominent and for that you should allow yourself some credit.

  5. I’ve long since decided that the BBC is heavily influenced by the NFU and the CA. Countryfile seems to have become a mouthpiece for both while paying the minimal lip service to other subjects. Let’s face it, what sort of a program would allow a whole section of their live show to be dedicated to an illegal pass time? At least the Pytchley Hunt were forced to withdraw after all the undercover footage of them rearing foxes was released but all the hunts do it.

    You did well just to get airtime.

  6. I think the BBC have been bullied into the current approach to ‘balance’ and it isn’t just raptor persecution where there is a problem – it gets far more absurd over issues where there is really no disagreement, but the inevitable tiny minority have to be dug out to provide ‘balance’.

    It is good that the coverage improved because this is an area where we all need to watch out for pressure being applied by the conservative establishment – its got to be close to the top of the tree. We’ve already got the CA attacks on Packham and it would be interesting to know what informal approaches may or may not be being made to senior BBC figures.

    My experience suggests that there is a significant mismatch between the metropolitan establishment view of the countryside and what most people think – at least the BBC has responded (rather mesmerised, I suspect) to the incredible viewing figures for Countryfile and Spring/Autumn Watch but I suspect the reasons haven’t penetrated real BBC thinking – and it’s worth remembering that even the conservation NGOs were taken completely by surprise by the public response to the forest sell off fiasco – where well know eco-zealots ranging from the Archbishop of Canterbury to Dame Judy Dench pitched into the argument.

  7. I think you are absolutely right, Mark and the point about so-called ‘balance’ (and the link with the Brexit debacle).

    However – and despite some of the coverage being less than ideal – it did have the effect of raising awareness, where previously there was none. I was astonished recently when a close friend, who is in a senior position at a local university, responded by saying, ‘What’s a harrier?’ after I told him about my Sunday trip to Geltsdale. People like that (also active in the Labour party) quickly smell a rat and go on to find out more.

    1. My husband gets coffee from a Ringtons salesman who calls every 6 weeks. He was out when the Ringtons guy called yesterday. I was just handing over the cash when he suddenly said “How’s the petition going then?” For a moment I couldn’t think what he meant. Then I realised. Husband must have been bending his ear on the doorstep last time. The salesman then said he had been online and looked at the information and signed up. So you never know……. Even though we have passed 100,000 each additional signature means someone else who might have been unaware now has an interest and might spread the word.
      So lets keep on keeping on.

  8. I was less impressed with Countryfile than you, Mark. 6/10 would be generous, and then only because CF usually (as a matter of editorial policy) avoids controversial issues and they did at least give this one an airing. But a better briefed/more knowledgeable interviewer might have challenged the interviewees about their evidence base rather more and meekly accepted contradictory assertions rather less.

    I share the general tenor of the other comments – when it comes to the environment the BBC mistakes equal air time for balance – it has finally realised that it’s not acceptable to do that with Climate Change pieces, esp when they put up a scientist vs a professional PR agent, but they don’t seem able to extend that learning to other evidence vs PR situations like this one. In fact I don’t think they think about “environment” as science at all – they think its all about opinion and values rather than having a factual underpinning. Contrast environmental coverage with arts coverage – now they take art and threats to art funding very seriously indeed, and news and current affairs presenters are usually knowledgeable about art in all its forms and always take the subject seriously.

    Personally I don’t think its any kind of establishment conspiracy (there may be an ingrained cultural bias on Farming Today) , just a running cock up born of ignorance. The BBC does have people who “get” science and present popular programmes – Chris P, that astronomy bloke that people swoon over, Jim Al Khalili, and others – but next to none of them work in news or current affairs.

    As others have said, it’s a shame. There’s a really good topical programme in or around the DGS issue; is Govt for the rich or for everyone? Agri- support post Brexit? what happens to the hills when the current generation of ageing hill farmers retire or die? attitudes to nature, re-wilding and its potential impact on rural communities, and social inequalities in the criminal justice system. But I don’t see the BBC making it. Channel 4 though – maybe. Anyone got any contacts to suggest it to?

    1. Quite Jbc, if their viewing figures are reduced to the grousers et. al. along with a few general public garden birdwatchers (nothing wrong with that) and another channel gets good figures from a specific topic being aired then they’ll have to try to recapture audience(s) and persuade those involved in generating interest in an issue (BDGS in this instance alongside all the associated issues, floods, water quality, increased house insurance etc.) from the public benefit perspective, would we speak to them then given their selective editing?

  9. I think you are generous to give the BBC 5 out of 10. With Countryfile being the high point this shows how low the bar is now. I may be a washed up old conspiracy theorist but it was interesting that the coverage seemed to get less biased as the e petition numbers went up. Also that the “mistake” that was later corrected worked against you not for you. Something that the main stream media are good at. As you say people tend to hear and believe the first thing said and it is then difficult for them to change after a correction. I agree that Chris Packham is a real asset, his innings on the Today programme against Botham’s bouncers was a classic.

  10. Not a good idea to get Countryfile interested in anything related to killing raptors because they are certain to want to have a go

    1. They’ve certainly had some corker pieces supporting it. Especially the segment which had the girl presenter pitching in and burning heather saying that if it grew high it would stifle biodiversity. Then the next week she was on heath in dorset saying that heather burning had been stopped and it was a haven for biodiversity. The only difference was that the former was where the upper classes go to for shooting, and the latter was on the doorstep of where they lived.

      1. The sad thing is that Ellie Harrison has a degree in Geography and Ecology so she doubtless doe know ear more than she’s allowed to say. It does beg the question of who leans on the show’s editor.

        Across a who;e range of issues the BBC is a pretty pale shadow of what it was twenty or thirty years ago. Sad.

        1. Perhaps, but a shame about Charlotte Smith who can’t tell the difference between hay and straw bales!?!? OK, I’m a pedant, but detail at the moment is important …. particularly with all the spin being bowled at the moment;)

          Ref.: Countryfile Sunday, talking about their recent ‘show’ – wonder how much license fee went into that or if the corporate event company which delivered it paid ‘us’ from revenue receipts?

  11. Bit of a push evident in the Brighton-Hove area today; 23 signatures over the 3 constituencies so far.

  12. A few late (as usual) thoughts.

    Re. the Claire Marshall story – the BBC website has a bit of form for this type of error – I once saw a story which described the RSPB as a “bird welfare charity”. It’s pisspoor when your state broadcaster can’t tell the RSPB from the RSPCA. As well as commenting on here about the animal rights activist line I contacted Claire on Twitter and I agree it’s to her credit it got corrected. Credit too to Chris Packham – if I hadn’t heard him explain why language is important and precisely how and why this phrase was wrong I wouldn’t have been.

    Re. Botham v Packham – you said CP wasn’t entirely happy with it but I thought he did well. I agree that Nick Robinson interrupted too much – I hate to be unkind as I know he’s been seriously ill but one well judged intervention aside he added little. Alongside Botham’s BTO study falsehood was another one suspects questionable assertion that “the RSPB’s own scientists have found that they [grouse moors I presume] contain five times the birds” – that was it, don’t know what it’s in comparison with – he’s clearly forgotten that you can’t take wickets with a no ball! I predict his days as a Sky Sports commentator are numbered.

    Re. PM piece on sat tagged HH, fantastic, well worth a listen if its still on iPlayer. Significantly its available as a clip, not just as part of the programme.

    Re. Country file – you’re to be congratulated on that Mark, both your own contribution and the achievement of getting a serious and balanced piece on the issue. Which goes for the more general success in getting media coverage. Duncan Thomas has a great career ahead of him as a panto villain, Andrew Gilruth comes across better in the flesh than in print (not saying much).

  13. Would agree with comments about PM piece and Eddie Mair’s report – it was such a welcome change – brilliant, and he deserves many congratulations.

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