How can most journalists accept without questioning that the tragic slaughter was essential? We know corporate media are part of the power structure but this really is Orwellian. I am ashamed that the media are no more to be relied upon than any of the other discredited institutions of British life.

No truth please, we're journalists Jonathan Miller

George Orwell pointed out that the British government didn't need censors because the media largely censor themselves. This was in an introduction to Animal Farm that was itself duly censored by Penguin. So how did the media do when there was a real-life Animal Farm story?

They performed as Orwell predicted. They were the dog that didn't bark. The media failed. For the most part, coverage has been biased, banal, scientifically illiterate and craven. The absence of inquiry or courage is a shame on the profession of journalism.

The name of this conference is 'the search for truth.' I'd say you'd not find it in the media.

The case for more humane, environmentally non-catastrophic and less costly strategies was never properly explained; the media default mode was instead shown to be supine. As I write this, foot and mouth has more or less disappeared from the news altogether, other than token coverage of 'isolated' outbreaks. It wasn't an election issue. The public seems broadly disconnected. Media consumers deserve better.

Initially the media were simply lazy. The easy way to cover the story was to parrot official claims, to rely on anonymous sources (government and NFU spin doctors), and to neglect to examine a highly tendentious case for slaughter. Scientific ignorance was par for the course. The disease was hysterically demonised; the media hardly questioned the 'hard measures' demanded by the NFU and clumsily executed by Maff.

But although an extraordinary story was unfolding of government incompetence and deception including many allegations of illegality, the media were unable to bestir themselves from indolence. Instead, we were offered 'scoops' based on unattributed leaks, such as the story in The Times blaming everything on a Chinese restaurant.

The first weeks of coverage saw the political parties agreed to repeat 1967's strategy and slaughter, burn or bury everything in sight. The Times announced (in a story devoid of a single attributed statement) that vaccination was out of the question. Tim Yeo was on the Jimmy Young programme supporting Nick Brown. He even sounded like Nick Brown. Everyone was briefed by the NFU, which the media decided was the authentic voice of farming, despite its undemocratic constitution and membership representing fewer than half of registered British holdings.

As it became evident that Maff was hopelessly incompetent and a major commercial and environmental disaster loomed, the spinning intensified. Downing Street spoke of 'taking out' sheep and 'pre-emptive strikes.' The army arrived and the media assumed this was good news because now more animals could be killed quicker.

The story then morphed into an election story: would Blair go to the polls in May? The political correspondents took control. Their dependence on official spin is total hence their stories ignored the details of the continuing countryside crisis. By now, most of the press was already aligned behind the re-election of the government.

The only daily newspaper consistently to take exception to the government line was The Telegraph. The BBC and the tabloids reached new depths of sycophancy when Downing Street 'saved' a photogenic calf. Meanwhile, more or less unreported, the prime minister was promising different strategies to different people, promising vaccination to one side and offering a veto to the NFU at the same time.

This is more sinister than mere indolence. All this speaks not simply to the laziness of the media but to a kind of corruption of intellect. How can most journalists accept without questioning that the tragic slaughter was essential? We know corporate media are part of the power structure but this really is Orwellian. I am ashamed that the media are no more to be relied upon than any of the other discredited institutions of British life. Why am I surprised? Perhaps I am not sufficiently cynical despite 35 years at this game. To me it is an odd mindset in a journalist that he or she can be so unquestioning. I thought that was what we were for.

The press was poor but TV was much worse. If TV can 'balance' a story by getting politicians of the different parties to parrot the party line in the lobby of the Millbank television building, the medium will often look no farther.

Because television news mirrors the Westminster agenda, and the Conservative party was broadly in support of the massive culling project, there was no television focus for oppositional statements. On balance, Channel 4 News and Newsnight were the only programmes that seemed at times to have a clue what was taking place. The NFU and Maff could have written the Archers' treatment of foot and mouth, such as it was. Dimbleby (J.) was good on the wireless but the vaunted Today programme was pretty hopeless. Farming Today stuck pretty close to the line, too, although they did finally interview Fred Brown.

Obviously there are individuals, not all of them journalists, who did do much better. Times 2 was quick to give a forum to Abigail Woods, the veterinary historian, with her challenging dissident analysis of the illness and the official response. Times 2 also presented a heretical investigation of foot and mouth, introduced by Magnus Linklater. This included some formidable journalism, albeit three months late. Otherwise I am sorry to say the news pages and editorial columns of The Times were a disappointment.

I was also disappointed in The Mail, which aligned itself with 'farmers' early in the crisis without recognising the deep divisions in the countryside. By collecting money for the farming charities, The Mail tacitly signed up to the slaughter. Only later did The Mail start seriously to question what was happening on the ground. Normally The Mail is quick to spot a story. I just don't think they really understood what was going on.

The Telegraph was the best of the daily papers, offering a consistently independent line and highlighting stories the other papers ignored. This clarity of opposition by a conservative newspaper was in strong contrast to the feeble performance being put up by the Conservative party itself.

The tabloids had very little of interest to say throughout the crisis, other than cheerleading Blair for saving Phoenix. Magazines? Not relevant. What an opportunity this could have been for Country Life and what a wasted opportunity.

I am not sure any of the other daily papers covered themselves in glory. The Guardian took a half-hearted stab at getting to the bottom of the story but its resources are not focussed on either the countryside or science. This is a paper that once claimed to have some scientific authority. Neither was there much journalism of note in the Independent.

I have seen snatches of local and regional daily papers and some of their efforts are deserving of note. I have seen good cuttings from the Eastern Daily Press and Western Daily Press and heard complaints about coverage in Scotland.

The Internet was not as powerful an influence on the story as conventional media. Yet foot and mouth showed the possibilities of the Internet as a platform for, let us call it, to differentiate it from spin-dried mass media news, 'real' news. Although many affected farms turned out not to have Internet access, an ad hoc network of individuals coalesced around their computers and between them, as the crisis developed, they were uncovering and publishing information of great importance.

Even without the searching inquiry that could rewardingly be made into media coverage of this epidemic, it is possible to detect in the coverage some other themes.

The first is that the media hasn't a clue when it comes to science. Those who run newspapers and broadcasts rarely have any scientific background. This scientific blank has been notable in the media's coverage of a number of recent subjects including Y2K (which the media got ludicrously wrong), GMOs (pace Daily Mail: 'Frankenstein food.'); global warming, and there are other examples. It's not just the media, by the way: ministers and politicians are thick on science, too.

Another theme, depressing for me, is how poorly the media cover real news. Editors tend to be comfortable with what they know. And what they know is what they have done before. So when an entirely novel situation occurs, they are unable to comprehend it. They like to cover stories as they covered them in the past so they send for the clips and do not think. Ironic, isn't it, in a profession that claims to be devoted to the new?

It is not just foot and mouth on which the media have abandoned independent inquiry, indignation and perseverance. Corporate journalism is part of the power structure and will rarely truly rock the boat. But the critical media failure does challenge journalism and its reason for being. On a professional level it is a terrible indictment of my profession that journalists have so comprehensively surrendered their duty to ask difficult questions.

There are honourable exceptions. Jonathan Dimbleby in The Mail, Libby Purves, Magnus in The Times and a handful of lesser-sung journalists from the provinces have produced some good work. I hope The Sunday Times has also had its moments.

Otherwise, there has been the Internet, where amateur sleuths have picked up the job the traditional media now fail to tackle. Most of the real stories were and still are being broken on Smartgroups and Sheepdrove. Since the traditional media are not to be relied on as guardians of truth or justice, the media challenge of the future is to develop the Internet channel to play a more effective role.

Jonathan Miller

13 June 2001

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