Cock-ups and conspiracies

NYXShooters are too quick to assume the worst when licensing issues hit the national press, says James Marchington.

I tend to subscribe to cock-up theory rather than conspiracy theory. When the power goes out or the post fails to arrive, the most likely explanation is often the most mundane one – a fuse has blown or the postie’s van wouldn’t start. Only the most ardent conspiracy theorist would look for a spy thriller plot involving secret societies and covert surveillance.

Likewise, sometimes coincidences are just coincidences. Sooner or later you will meet someone who shares your first name and birthday. Life is like that.

When it comes to the media, however, you’d be foolish to take anything at face value. The general public fondly imagine that eager reporters tramp the streets day and night looking for stories. They read about a cat that’s adopted a duckling and think ‘Aw, how sweet,’ without ever wondering how that story arrived in the paper, along with a cute photo of said duckling sitting between Tiddles’s paws.

The clues are always in the story somewhere, and can be interpreted by those who understand how the game works. Read a little closer and you’ll realise that the Little Chooks Animal Sanctuary is desperate for money to pay the leccy bill and needs to whip up donations. So they called their mate the retired Fleet Street photographer, who could do with a few quid himself because his pension from the Daily Grub doesn’t go as far as it once did.

He popped round and set up a photo with whatever animals came to hand. Knowing how editors’ minds work, he picked a winning combination of fluffy favourites that wouldn’t normally be expected to get along, snapped his pic, and emailed it off to the picture desk with a caption carefully crafted to have the best possible chance of getting in the paper.

Meanwhile the hard-pressed picture editor is tearing his hair out worrying how to fill that half-page slot on page 7. What he needs is a nice, happy good-news story to cheer up the readers after all those pages of murders and riots and celebrity cellulite. Something light and upbeat and close to home…

And hallelujah, look what old Tom has just sent in – just the job. Whack it in, pass Tom’s caption and details to the subs, bish bash bosh and off to the pub I go.

Next morning, the entire nation is going ‘Aaah’ over ducks and kittens – and all because some old dear in the West Country got the red-ink treatment from SWEB. It’s like the butterfly effect, only using ducks and cats instead of lepidoptera.

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And that’s how shooting gets into the press. Not because some eager cub reporter was hiding in the bushes at the clay ground, or bothered to sit through a shooting association’s AGM in the hope that something interesting would come up. If newspapers ever could afford to pay journalists to work like that (which they didn’t), they certainly can’t now.

No, it happens because someone, somewhere, has an axe to grind. Trying to work out who could make a good dinner-party game: ‘For 10 points, who do you think sent the Guardian a press release suggesting that game shooters are filthy rich, wear tweed and shoot hen harriers with highly toxic shot, and that all their land should be confiscated and turned into nature reserves run by the RSPB?’

Returning to reality briefly, why did the BBC, Daily Mail and Telegraph all suddenly find the subject of shotgun and firearms licence fees hugely newsworthy on 9 June? Was it that each of their reporters independently stumbled across the fact that it costs police roughly four times the licence fee to process each application?

Of course they didn’t. No, the police, or the Association of Chief Police Officers to be precise, had decided it was time to give the subject an airing. If you trawled back through the minutes of ACPO’s snappily titled Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group (FELWG), well, you’ll probably fall asleep. But if you didn’t, you’d learn that licensing fees have been under discussion for some time.

At the October 2012 meeting, the group heard that a revised paper had been submitted to the Home Office in July that year, asking for an increase in fees. After originally seeking ‘full cost recovery’, the revised paper was instead looking for increases to cover inflation, plus a ‘modest increase’ to go partway towards recovering the cost of running the system.

The minutes note that ‘there are inefficiencies within the firearms licensing system’ and suggest that before looking for any fee increase beyond inflation, they should first look at what savings might be made by improving the current levels of efficiency. Further meetings were planned with the Home Office to discuss the matter.

So we have the police lobbying the government to raise firearms licensing fees, at a time when police budgets are being squeezed and pressure on the police to provide value has never been greater. Looking at the timing, that meeting must be coming up… well, round about now. And suddenly ACPO is talking to the press about how unfair it all is – fees haven’t risen for more than a decade, and each year it costs the police £19 million more than the fees actually raise to run the system.

The question that none of the journalists thought to ask, or if they did they didn’t report it, was: “And why are you telling us this now?” I’d be willing to bet my shotgun certificate fee that the answer would be something like, “Er, well, we’ve got a meeting with the Home Office on Friday and we thought it might improve our chances of getting our way.”

Not, as a couple of shooting’s spokesmen seemed to think, that they’ve all got it in for us – or as the Telegraph put it: “Sporting gun users immediately said they feared the move was a backdoor attempt to cut the number of gun owners in the country.”

Of course it wasn’t. It was all about the money – and ACPO using the media to put pressure on government to let them extract a bit more of it from the public. Any public will do. A cool £19 million is a fraction of what they’d like to squeeze from the hard-pressed motorist – and no one is suggesting they’re trying to curb car ownership by the back door – but every little helps.

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One comment on “Cock-ups and conspiracies
  1. Daniel Boone says:

    I’m started to get very interested in the Firearms and Explosives Licensing Working Group and how they work. Perhaps it might be time for someone from the shooting community to have a seat on that group and no, not ex police officers.

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