Here is your starter for ten points. Complete this well-known phrase or saying: “The BBC’s coverage of rural affairs is, on the whole…” Time’s up, and no, the answer is not a four-letter word rhyming with grit. The official answer is: “impartial with a broad and comprehensive range of voices.”
Well, you could have fooled me, but that’s the official finding of an independent review, commissioned by the BBC Trust and produced by Heather Hancock – and she should know, being a former managing partner at Deloitte and ex-chair of the BBC’s rural affairs committee. The BBC website doesn’t elaborate on whether she keeps chickens, rides to hounds or drives a tractor, but one suspects not.
The report goes on. And on. But the gist of it is that the BBC’s coverage of rural affairs shows no evidence of party political bias, and that coverage of controversial stories, such as badger culling or fracking, is generally impartial.
What’s more, the BBC’s “flagship specialist programmes” such as Countryfile and Farming Today are “highly appreciated by audiences and include a wide range of voices and opinions.” Hmm.
The Trust acknowledges that there is room for improvement. News and current affairs from rural England fail to reach the UK network programmes, it says. The BBC gives undue weight to a small number of organisations on rural issues, and coverage gravitates towards conflicts or protests. Heather Hancock also highlights the tendency for the BBC to focus on the environmental aspects of rural Britain, without giving enough weight to economic and social dimensions.
Country sports don’t make it into the Trust’s overview on the BBC website, but in fact Heather Hancock devoted three pages of her report to the subject. Deep down on page 38 she acknowledges that the area is a “raw nerve”. She reflects the fieldsports community’s concerns: “Millions of people across the country – from all walks of life – take part in activities such as shooting or angling, including lots who live in towns and cities. Many of these people fervently believe that, through their pastime, they make a significant contribution to the natural environment. In England, an estimated two million hectares of land are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting, and almost 500,000 people a year shoot live quarry. These activities are legal and pervasive across the countryside. They are not an exclusive preserve of the rich or the landowner.”
The report includes a quote from Shooting Times editor Alastair Balmain: “Getting the message across that our activity is a regular, uncontroversial one is, to a certain extent, our responsibility as members of the specialist shooting press, but equally I would like an understanding from the programme makers at the BBC that those involved in fieldsports reflect one element of the diversity the BBC is obliged to represent. I think that doesn’t happen currently. Game shooting, for example, is often portrayed as an obscure, arcane or weird activity. Given that half a million people in the UK are regularly involved, it’s quite clear that portrayal is wrong.”
All good stuff, but will anything change? Perhaps, a tiny bit. In response to the report, the BBC will appoint an editorial ‘rural champion’ (I nominate Robin Page), make it easier for local and regional BBC journalists to get stories on the UK network news, resurrect the role of BBC rural affairs correspondent, have regular meetings for rural affairs journalists and programme makers, and extend its contacts book – one hopes to include the GWCT and BASC press offices as well as those of the RSPB and RSPCA.
Countryside Alliance boss Barney White-Spunner hailed the report as a victory. He said: “Ms Hancock makes some excellent recommendations, especially her calls for rural business, economic and social issues to be covered as well as those concerning the environment, and the reinstatement of the post of BBC rural affairs correspondent. The number of groups the BBC turns to when stories break also needs to be increased and we would appreciate a less simplistic view of rural affairs, broadcast for those who live in the country as well as those who use it.” He adds: “Superficial changes will not be enough – the changes the BBC needs to make are fundamental.”
Indeed they are – and as if to underline that fact, within days of the report’s publication we cringed at Countryfile’s coverage of the new PACEC report. Auntie Beeb could hardly ignore new research showing that shooting is worth £2bn a year to the UK economy, and is involved in the management of two thirds of the UK’s rural land area. So she didn’t. Instead Countryfile reported it in the style of a vegetarian urban primary school teacher, with an air of “Gosh boys and girls, don’t these funny men with guns spend a lot of money. And they claim they’re good for the environment too. Let’s ask the RSPB about that shall we children?”
I lost count of the times presenter Tom Heap used terms like “claim”, “controversial” and “killing wildlife”, while the RSPB was given a free ride to make its outrageous claims about the “environmental damage” done by grouse moor managers. Who needed them on the programme anyway? When it’s an item about the RSPB, do the Beeb invite someone along to make wild assertions about birdwatchers robbing nests and disturbing birds of prey?
Ah, but it’s a controversy, you see. Because there are antis willing – keen even – to stand in front of a camera and say it is. So the Beeb must show its impartiality by giving them a voice.
For now, that’s the price we pay for getting our message on the telly – and to the credit of BASC and the others involved, shooting came across very well on that Countryfile programme, despite the best efforts of the producers.
It would be nice to think that, one day, the BBC might show shooting without an apologetic reference to “some people” thinking it’s not okay to “kill wildlife for fun” – much as they show ordinary folk eating meat without calling it controversial and interviewing a spokesdrone from the militant vegan front.
That’s basically what Heather Hancock was calling for in her report, but it somehow got lost in the translation, and I’m not holding my breath.