DAVID LEE, the NFU assistant press officer at Agriculture House, Knightsbridge, was giving the new issue of Radio Times a quick once-over on the afternoon of April 26. Looking across at Roger Turff, the press officer, he said: ‘I’m about to spoil your day’.
Radio Times and the Brass Tacks programme on BBC 2 was to spoil quite a number of days for both NFU members and staff; between them they also involved other specialised divisions of the Union, farmers all over the country, and almost every other organisation connected with Britain’s meat industry.
The small picture and paragraph which David Lee spotted was the trailer for a full-scale feature published in Radio Times on May 2, which made serious allegations about the use of drugs on Britain’s livestock farms.
Heavily loaded against the industry, full of emotion and somewhat short of facts the effect of the feature was reinforced by the front cover of the magazine. This, under a picture of a very healthy looking piglet, told readers: ‘HEALTH WARNING:MEAT AND POULTRY MAY SERIOUSLY AFFECT YOUR HEALTH’.
The layout and typeface used was to similar to that used for official Government warnings on cigarette packets and advertising as to mislead the casual reader into believing that this was such and official warning – and within a few moments the BBC journal’s features department was being told so in strong terms.
The Radio Times features man seemed hurt. “It’s just a jokey way of calling attention to it’, he said rather lamely.
The reply he received from Agriculture House was that quite a number of people were not going to think much of that joke.
Radio Times for May 2 was already printed and awaiting dispatch. Could the NFU obtain an injunction to prevent its publication?
The Union’s lawyers advised against such action. If there was defamation it was defamation of an entire industry; such damage as might be done would be damage to every livestock farmer and retail butcher in the country – not to mention the confidence of the 20 million Radio Times readers.
Vice-President Alan Jackson and Director-General Roy Watson concluded that since defamation, damage and malicious intent would have to be proved legally any failure to do so would attract wide publicity which could easily be interpreted as an attempt to prevent the public from learning the facts and would draw a much larger viewing audience.
Instead, it was decided to make every effort to counter this bad publicity. The Radio Times feature was itself a trailer for a new edition of the BBC 2 programme Brass Tacks. This is a current affairs production which aims at “taking the lid off” matters of public concern.
The May 8 transmission was scheduled to deal with a variety of matters concerning meat production. Chief among these was a claim, which would be made in the course of the programme, that the extensive and indiscriminate use of drugs in livestock poses a major public health risk. For the first time phone-in programmes, linked to the TV programme, were to go out from every BBC local radio station.
All this information was extracted by telephone from various departments of the BBC. Within 24 hours the Union had secured a guarantee from the Brass Tacks producer that representatives of the industry would be allowed to answer the claims in the TV studio. At the same time the NFU’s seven regional information officers received orders to ensure that farmers were in every local radio station on the night of May 8 and that others were fully briefed to watch the TV programme and make their views know over the telephone.
All speakers were provided with a technical background brief on the various matters which might arise. Other sectors of the industry, among them the Meat and Livestock Commission and the National Federation of Meat Traders, weighed in with powerful support and by May 8, the Union was fully prepared to refute the damaging allegations in the programme.
Publicly there is no doubt that the attack upon the industry was convincingly repulsed. Although faced with a confused and disjointed piece of emotive and biased film, which they had not seen in advance, the industry’s representatives in the TV studio – among them Charles Jarvis, chairman of the British Farm Produce Council – gave a good account of themselves in a very short space of time.
On radio farmers rang programmes with questions and comments, while those on the spot made full use of their opportunity to answer questions.
Privately, the row rumbled on long after the transmissions. Letters from the President, Mr Richard Butler, to Sir Michael Swann, chairman of the BBC – and the Director-General Roy Watson – to his opposite number Mr Ian Trethowan – expressed the Union’s deep concern at the lack of consultation over the tone of the Radio Times feature and the production of the Brass Tacks programme. Director of Information Richard Maslen made a strong protest to the Editor of Radio Times.
Some good may have come out of it all. The farmers, to a large extent, put matters right; the NFU proved once again that it is a body not to be ignored; and a great many people in many walks of life who know the inside story will perhaps be a little more critical of future presentations which seek to ‘take the lid off’ a selected subject.
1 June 1979