The BBC lets agriculture down

Livestock Farming, June 1979

THE BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation has flipped its lid. After weeks of scrupulous impartiality throughout the general election campaign – extending to even fiction programmes – it has seemingly sought to let off steam through the medium of a new programme called Brass Tacks.

This programme – billed in the Radio Times as ‘a new concept in broadcasting – is an insult to the public intelligence and professional journalism. If the hitherto much-respected BBC has any sensitivity left it will review the senior staff appointments on Brass Tacks.

Broadcast at peak viewing time on BBC2 on Tuesday May 8, the first edition ran under the title ‘It shouldn’t happen to a pig‘. A Radio Times front cover drummed up viewers with an appealing picture of a pig. Underneath, imitating the style and format of the Government health warning on cigarette advertisements, the following appeared: ‘HEALTH WARNING: MEAT AND POULTRY MAY SERIOUSLY AFFECT YOUR HEALTH’: So before the nation’s television sets were even plugged in, the programme reeked of bias more strongly than freshly agitated pig slurry.

The programme – purporting to ‘take the lid off Britain’s factory farms … animals that have to be given regular doses of hormones and antibiotics … the risk of transmitting disease to the consumer … just some by-products of intensive livestock farming’ – opened with a film which was largely accurate and fair. This showed farms, abattoirs, vets at work, public health officers at work, scene setting stuff. The programme producers, however, obliviously anxious to keep emotions in a whipped up state, superimposed the most sinister weird music on the film. Every-day scenes thus appeared dangerous and brutal.

Then followed an appalling discussion session between a studio panel of farming representatives and a former president of the British Veterinary Association and a curious and totally unrepresentative assembly of ‘country folk’ seated on straw bales on a Kent organic farm.

The presenter, Eric Robson, did the absolute minimum to prevent the studio panel tearing him apart. He would put a loaded point to them and then, barely listening to what they replied, swing round to a screen showing the ‘country folk’ shivering down in Kent. Whereupon a trendy biochemist would make a comment like: ‘Meat is prepared in lavatories and should therefore be treated like a lump of dung.

It was scarcely surprising, then, that one of the studio panellists, Mr Charles Jarvis, chairman of the British Farm Produce Council, should write to a daily newspaper saying: ‘I have just taken part in a nightmare.’ He went on: ‘My nightmare started with the film and the realisation that we had been set up, without preview, to answer what came over as a deliberately loaded attack with no time to do so properly; to have to sit and watch the savaging of a first-class industry in which so many people work most devotedly with unselfish and ill-rewarded dedication; to have to quell one’s anger and try to offer something quick and sensible when the subject called for quiet and thoughtful debate.’

We know that the BBC’s own professional agricultural producers and reporters were angered and shamed by Brass Tacks. Such programmes can only make their jobs more difficult. This was highlighted in the BBC TV’s Sunday Farming programme on May 13. A panel of sane, rational men and women made minced-meat of the scare talk on Brass Tacks in five minutes flat. Unfortunately, as one of them pointed out, Farming preaches to the converted.

It makes us shudder to think what conclusions the average Brass Tacks viewer came to.

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