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Settling for less: the media on foot and mouth
1 June, 2001

AGAIN, my apologies: I would dearly like to stop writing about foot and mouth - and so, I suspect, would our readers. But this week, I would like to look, not at the shambles of Government action, but the way it is reported in the national media.

Now I do this with a certain amount of cynicism but also from personal experience: I worked on and off in Fleet Street for some quarter of a century before coming to my senses and moving to the Dales. And I am simply appalled by the way most national newspapers and broadcasting organisations have covered the cluster of outbreaks in the Settle-Clitheroe area.

My main thought is: was the lack of interest simply because the media became bored with the story? Or are there more sinister reasons - like, for instance, a general election campaign?
John Sheard

Last week, many national newspapers seemed to be reporting "the facts" on party political lines. Whereas the Telegraph, staunchly right wing, was claiming that MAFF had under-reported the number of outbreaks by as much as 100 per cent, the left-leaning Independent on Sunday stated bluntly that Dales farmers were responsible for spreading the disease.

Now the former could be seen as an attempt to further embarrass the already doomed Ministry of Agriculture but the latter was of particular interest to me because the outgoing editor of the IoS is non-other than Janet Street-Porter.

What makes Ms Porter, who virtually invented "yoof television" - much to the alarm of many intelligent viewers - an interesting case is because she is a very keen walker who has spent many weekends in the Dales.

She is also a leading member of the militant tendency which in recent years has appeared to hi-jack the once much-respected Ramblers' Association and, in the eyes of many landowners and farmers, turned it into an instrument of class warfare.

After the Independent on Sunday attack on farmers - who, up until then, had been moving livestock quite legally because no restrictions were in place - Ms Street-Porter went on the radio and accused farmers of being "deeply distrustful" of ramblers and determined the sabotage the Right to Roam legislation for which the ramblers have fought long and hard.

But in doing so, she also criticised some county representatives of her own association who have worked for years to come to amicable agreements with landowners on improved access to open land.

I have met several cases like this over the years and have been told many times by local ramblers that they did not agree with the view from Wandsworth, the South London borough which is home to their national headquarters.

Many other media bodies chose to simply ignore the Settle crisis. The BBC's Look North programme did not have a major report at the angry Settle confrontation between farmers, local business owners and agriculture minister Nick Brown.

Instead, on their lunchtime show that day, Look North did a live broadcast of a children's choir in Bradford singing a Yorkshire calypso!

There are, of course, honourable exceptions. The Yorkshire Post, which claims to be the county's national newspaper, reported the crisis blow by blow. So did the BBC's Today programme and the Channel Four TV news.

Nearer to home, the Craven Herald excelled itself by putting the story on its front page, only the second time that news has replaced its now-famous ads in the paper's long history.

From the rest, an almost total lack of interest. Was this boredom? Or had the Government spin-doctors - hugely embarrassed by the new flare up after Tony Blair had promised "we are on the home straight" - been twisting arms in Fleet Street again? I leave that decision, dear reader, up to you in this general election week.

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