THAT punchy, percussive introductory music is a give-away. Another trial by television is under way. This time it was in the form of Brass Tacks, BBC-2’s new series designed to give the public a chance to have its says on controversial matters by providing subsequent phone-in programmes on local radio stations all over the country.
But first you must have a controversy. The case against has to be made.
The first subject for dissection on Tuesday night was British intensive-farming methods which provide relatively cheap food at some risk to our health. Needless to say, our farmers did not emerge from the fray with reputations enhanced. They were judged bottom of the European league of hygiene for a start.
The image presented in the opening film, which amounted to the case for the prosecution, were horrendous. If true, no one in their right mind would touch meat again. And that’s leaving aside the standard blood-and-guts sequences in the abattoirs.
The scene was the intensive farming unit where methods were so intensive that pigs went mad. Clearly identifiable as villains were the farmers – or those in the agri-business as the jargon has it – who were pumping the poor animals full of growth-promoting drugs without real awareness of the effects on the animals let alone the humans who later consumed them.
One of the most serious dangers highlighted was that the continual use on animals of drugs such as chloramphenicol, which should be reserved for the treatment of typhoid in humans, might well build resistance in animals and in humans too. Uncontrollable typhoid in humans was a possible and fearful consequence. The farmers’ accomplices on this dark side of the agri-business were the vets who, it was alleged, could earn up to 60 percent of their incomes from the sale of drugs. Over shadowing all, of course, was the drug industry itself, but shadowy its presence remained.
Most disturbing of all was that the source of these fears was not the organic farming sect, who were all televisually arrayed, sitting in the cold on a collapsed hay stack, but public health officers bewailing their inability to cope.
“Meat,” the biochemist had informed us (squeamish readers please avert your eyes), “was prepared in lavatories and should be treated as if it were a lump of dung.”
The poultryman, for his part, vigorously upheld chicken as the safest of meats despite the assertion by one health officer that practically all of it was contaminated by salmonella, cause of enteritis and a potential killer.
The vet belatedly made both protestations redundant by remarking, almost idly, that cooking killed all known salmonella germs. Who, after all, eats raw chicken?
As usual with such programmes, many hares were raised but few tracked down. The subsequent public phone-in tended to confuse issues further but was memorable for the compassionate pig-farmer from Orpington who always visited his pigs at bed-time to say goodnight.
The viewer, left stumbling through a maze of contradictory facts and opinions, is the jury in this trial by television.
by ROBIN STRINGER
10 May 1979