Right-wing wonderland or liberal fantasy? Who is the countryside for, and how should it be used?

That’s the issue that’s been at the heart of a couple of interesting media articles this month, and – with all the inevitability of people making Nazi comparisons in arguments on the internet – shooting has been dragged into the fray.

The two articles I was particularly interested in both had the same underlying proposition – that there is an ‘authentic’ version of the countryside that is largely being ignored or manipulated by others – but differed wildly in their approach, and indeed in their merit.

The first piece was in the Daily Mail but, in a shocking twist, this is not the one I think should be blasted off the face of the internet. Continuing its occasional series of anti-RSPB jibes, which was kicked off by mustachioed champion of common sense Ian Botham, the Mail published an interesting piece on the bias of Countryfile, which attacked its unrealistic portrayal of the countryside as a bloodless fantasy-land just waiting for city-dwellers to come and play in it. Countryfile, argued the author, “have found that the secret to bumper viewing figures is to sell us a pleasingly make-believe image which in many respects is no more than a beguiling but, in fact, rather nasty fake.”

This is a point of view that’s been largely lacking in the media, despite it being an opinion held by millions of rural residents, and to see it get more airtime, even in the Daily Fail, is gratifying. What’s even better is to have mainstream commentators pulling apart the holier-than-thou RSPB and highlighting their hypocritical practices. For example, the author states that: “One might expect the RSPB to be vociferous in protesting at how many birds (and bats) are killed each year by the spinning blades of our 4,500 giant wind turbines. But it has become so close to the wind industry it even receives a regular income from one of our giant power companies which builds wind farms.”

As has been demonstrated with the recent Oxfam scandal, the way some charities are run makes Theresa May’s cabinet look like a well-oiled machine, and one driven by unimpeachably principled individuals at that. The growing climate of scrutiny on publicly-funded organisations is to be welcomed, even if it seems inevitable that, if a scandal involving the RSPB did break, it would be the Daily Mail claiming the credit while those who have long highlighted abuses of the RSPB’s power – such as Tim Bonner at the Countryside Alliance – will not receive the recognition they deserve.

Overall, the Daily Mail article wasn’t a bad read, making several valid points and touching on some of the thorny issues around pest control and habitats that are often whitewashed by Countryfile, whose portrayal exacerbates the climate of misunderstanding and hatred that leads to the persecution of people in our industry.

While the Mail focused on the battle between the urban media and the authentic countryside, and argued for a balanced representation of the countryside and rural issues in the media – now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type – Janet Street Porter used her column in the Independent to highlight quite a different struggle: that between the authentic countryside and ‘nouveau’ landowners wanting to turn swathes of land into cash-grabbing pheasant shoots. Spoiler alert, this one is a pile of digital excrement.

The headline alone is worth feasting on: “Hopefully a woman at the head of the Farmers’ Union will stop our countryside from becoming a theme park for pheasant shooters and designer farmers”.

Let’s pause here for a second. If we set aside the incontrovertible truth that women are innately better at everything, the idea that the new president will take a particular view just because she’s female is unbelievably sexist – the headline tells us nothing about her skills or personality, just her chromosomes, and why would they affect which policy decisions she makes? Incidentally, can you imagine the outcry if the piece had been published with ‘hopefully a man at the head…’?

Once you get past your incredulity about that, however, it’s time to confront the damaging nonsense in her column, which amounts to a slanderous take on the pheasant shooting industry.

Presenting herself as an expert by stating that she lives in rural Yorkshire and eats game, which in today’s journalism is enough for the casual reader to assume she knows what she’s talking about, JS-P then lays out a series of assertions that largely relies on facts sourced from other articles – often ones where the ‘data’ is supplied by anti organisations.  

One assertion, which runs throughout the piece, is that anyone who shoots pheasants is an ‘expensively clad’ Tory who has no connection with the landscape around them. “These shooters don’t walk, don’t explore, don’t connect with the beautiful environment except down the barrel of the gun,” she writes. Her presentation of all pheasant shooters as urban tourists builds up a neat picture of villainy in the reader’s mind, and one that it’s easy to set yourself against. ‘But of course I would appreciate the beautiful countryside,’ thinks the reader, smugly. ‘If only there was a way to free myself from this comfortable sofa’.

This false picture of shooters as people who don’t care about the countryside is further embellished by two subsequent claims. One, the casual assertion that gamekeepers shoot raptors, and two, that “the waste is repellent – dozens and dozens of pheasant carcasses get chucked in garbage bags and turned into pet food or worse. Butchers can’t afford to pluck them and shooters aren’t interested in taking them.”

Her lack of understanding, and her arrogance in writing these sweeping statements, is breathtaking. (The accusation about the carcasses is also particularly troubling, as I’ve seen a number of flags in the media recently that suggest a big story is on the horizon – hopefully I’m wrong.) For someone who claims to love the countryside, it seems unlikely that JS-P hasn’t taken the time to really engage with the community. And if she has, then she clearly doesn’t care that writing of this kind endangers the whole shooting sport – including the grouse shooting that she claims to support in her opening paragraphs.

Fortunately, I don’t think that Minette Batters is the kind of woman who gets her ideas from reading newspaper columns. (Unlike some of the other female leaders of this country… ahem.) But just in case… Minette: The Independent is particularly good for wrapping fish and chips, while the Daily Mail works well for lighting fires.

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