‘Ineffective and inhumane’ – or in denial?

***Updated, March 16th (see below)***

badger

Back in media-land the insanity on the badger cull continues (see previous post). I was unfortunate enough last Friday to witness this Channel 4 news report on a ‘scientific assessment’ which called the recent pilot culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset ‘ineffective’ and ‘inhumane’. It struck me as a classic example of media framing – laying down (and subsequently policing) the boundaries of public discussion to extremely narrow parameters in a way that benefits the powerful. So, for example, you hear respectable commentators talk about the 2003 Iraq war and polarise the debate between those who view it as ‘justified’ and those who think it was a ‘miscalculation’. You hardly ever hear the conclusion that the evidence supports – namely that it was a deliberate act of criminal aggression. Likewise, with the negative effects of ‘austerity’ in the UK (dismantling of the NHS,  removal of benefits, pay freezes, public sector job losses), at the liberal extreme these are most often presented as a failure or a mistake on the part of politicians, but practically never as intentional, cynical policies to further reconstruct the economy as a channel of wealth from the poor (and middle-classes) to the super-rich.

So how does this apply to the badger cull, as discussed in this particular Channel 4 bulletin? Well first off presenter Cathy Newman passes on the government’s stated justification for the cull without criticism – we are to believe from the start that the cull was ‘aimed at tackling the spread of TB in cattle’ and everything that follows rests on this premise. Other possible motivations such as irrational hatred of wildlife, scapegoating and displacement of responsibility on the part of the farming lobby and a willingness of the political establishment to ‘offer [them] a carrot’* don’t merit consideration.

Science Editor Tom Clarke then comes on to make his presentation. He fleshes out the Official Explanation for our benefit:

The purpose of these [pilot culls] was to show that you could effectively and humanely kill badgers to control TB and kill enough of them quickly enough to prevent spreading the disease

and presents the ‘very strict rules’ by which success or failure are apparently to be judged – namely a minimum 70% kill rate, a six week culling period and to shoot them in a ‘humane’ way using trained marksmen. The news, then, was that

What we now know is that they managed to fail on several of these counts.

It turns out that they were able to kill less than 50% of the target populations. However, this is not a source of concern or grief to Clarke – a very real failure to stop badgers getting killed for highly dubious reasons – rather:

50% [is] an important number because that’s actually getting down to the point at which this policy could in fact cause more TB to spread around than not.

(To his credit he does refer to the ‘humane’ goal of less than 5% of badgers taking longer than five minutes to die as an ‘arbitrary and not particularly laudable target’)

We then hear from Dominic Dyer of ‘Badger Trust & Care For The Wild’ with a priceless soundbite:

This cull has been an absolute disaster. They’ve only killed a fraction of the badgers they thought they would be able to kill.

What? Does that mean he would be happy if they had killed 70% of the populations?? This pathetic opposition which implicitly accepts – indeed, which appears to cheerlead the government’s insane policies (so long as they are carried out ‘efficiently’ and ‘scientifically’) was repeated by the scientist chosen by the BBC’s newsteam, Prof. Rosie Woodroffe  of the Zoological Society of London [0:45]:

These culls have not killed enough badgers, haven’t done it fast enough. The benefits will not be, therefore, as great, we expect [as in a former trial]

Benefits??? Whose benefits would that refer to, I wonder? Not much benefit in a fucking bullet, is there! At least, not if you’re on the receiving end…

The discussion back in the Channel 4 studio takes a surreal twist after Newman poses this corker: ‘It sounds like an odd question but how hard is it to kill a badger humanely?’ – as if she was thinking about getting involved herself and wondering how to go about it. Clarke responds with a sympathetic portrayal of the marksman’s plight:

[T]he one thing that struck me is how impossible it must be – it’s dark, it’s raining most of the time, it’s thick forest. I’m actually surprised these marksmen managed to kill any badgers at all, let alone cleanly. So I don’t think we should be too surprised that there were some problems. […] This is a complicated, difficult, rather messy business, killing animals. But we’re a society that prides ourselves on our humaneness, especially our farming industry [ha!], so it makes it hard to justify from a humane point of view.

This reminded me of the way the media guides us to empathise with the ‘difficult task’ of the soldiers in the UK’s overseas wars, presenting it as a dry, technical challenge and not speaking of moral culpability when they go about their business of killing defenceless creatures  – of their own species (and again for highly dubious reasons which we’re not supposed to scrutinise too closely). Yes, it’s a complicated, difficult, rather messy business, killing Afghans and Iraqis. But we’re a society that prides ourselves on our deep commitment to democracy and human rights, especially our military, so it makes it hard to justify – a tough decision, a difficult job but someone’s got to do it etc etc ad nauseam.

I think lots of people think the cull has been highly successful, even if it doesn’t get rolled out across the country for the next three years as originally planned. For them the point was never to do something about Bovine TB – if they were serious about that then they would look to the farming practices that create the perfect breeding ground for this disease among cattle in the first place. As with the focus on dredging as a supposed cure to lowland flooding (it isn’t), I think the intention was to be seen to be doing something about the problem, regardless of how effective this might prove to be. There’s also the possibility that the issue has served as a distraction while bigger things were going on behind the scenes, as raised in this Think Left article:

However, there is another rather concerning thought. The public outrage and likely direct action against the cull, may distract the media away from something that the government wants to slip through unnoticed. There is little doubt, that it was just this sort of distraction tactic, that lay behind the proposal to sell off the forest which was announced just as the Health and Social Care bill took its first steps through the Commons.

I suppose if that’s true I’ve fallen for it, hook line & sinker (although at least I’ve taken it in a direction of my own choosing).

But really, I think the major success of this policy has been an emotional one – to lash out in frustration at something that can’t fight back, and to act out destructive urges on something which has no real or immediate value, according to the metrics of the current dominant culture.

***Update, March 16th***

Other opposition figures captured by government/media rhetoric about ‘effectiveness’ include Caroline Lucas:

Now that its own research has demonstrated that badger culling is cruel as well as pointless, it’s time for the Government to heed the evidence and end this failed policy once and for all. (link)

and Chris Packham:

Let me be clear from the outset, if the scientific evidence pointed to culling badgers being an effective, humane, sustainable and economically viable solution to the increasing occurrence of TB in cattle then I’d be agreeing to it. (link)

Now I’m struggling to find a parallel that doesn’t violate Godwin’s Law, but… imagine that you live as a minority group in a racist totalitarian society. There’s an outbreak of epidemic disease which affects a large portion of the population, due mainly to overcrowded living conditions, poor sanitation, malnutrition etc. – basically the incompatibility of the human organism to prolonged city life. Your group is relatively lucky in that marginalisation and prejudice means you live on the outskirts in a somewhat more resilient, rural form of subsistence economy, although you also suffer losses from the city-born epidemic. But when disaster strikes the city founders and leaders (including those who most benefit from its continued operations) quite understandably don’t want to undermine their Great Accomplishments or any future ambitions by drawing attention to the real causes of the epidemic. Instead they divert attention away from themselves by casting an eye for the briefest of moments outside of their sphere of influence until they find someone else they can blame who won’t cause them too many problems. So your group becomes the scapegoat and wild accusations about your inherent uncleanliness or genetic impurity start flying around. You are judged guilty of causing a ‘health risk’ to the broader population either passively (through your supposedly lax standards) or even through active conspiracies (eg: poisoned wells, subversion of the social fabric etc.) So they send the shock troops in to carry out a ‘controlled cull’ of your population. Terror ensues, your way of life is shattered, you can no longer trust anybody any more, you suffer all the symptoms of post traumatic stress as a community. Then one day you hear that some intellectual luminaries in the city opposed this atrocity on the grounds that it was a ‘failed policy’, ‘ineffective’, ‘inhumane’, ‘unsustainable’, ‘economically unviable’. They say that the cull and any future culls ought to be discontinued because it is difficult, if not impossible to ensure that targets of killing 50% or more of the selected populations – your friends and relations – are met. How would you react?

To be fair to Lucas, Packham and others, these are the comments of theirs that have been deemed acceptable for inclusion and propagation by the media system. It’s highly likely they have a whole host of unacceptable opinions on this issue which they pretty much have to keep to themselves. Packham is a case in point. I much prefer his earlier tweeted comments about the pilot culls:

It is both sad and shameful that when night falls and the setts of southern England stir their gentle folk will be needlessly slaughtered. That in spite of science and public will the wrath of ignorance will further bloody and bleed our countryside of its riches of life. That brutalist thugs, liars and frauds will destroy our wildlife and dishonour our nations reputation as conservationists and animal lovers. So I fear that tonight could be the darkest for British wildlife that we have witnessed in our lives. I feel sick, sad, disempowered, betrayed, angry and crushed by the corruption of all that I know as right. I feel rage. (link)

But a Tory MP complained that this breached BBC impartiality (even though it was from a personal twitter account) and as a result Packham, we can assume, got a slap on the wrist from his managers and was forced to promise not to speak about the issue any more, at least not on the BBC’s time:

On his website, Mr Packham said: “My views on the badger cull are well known and have been widely voiced and published.

“They are opinions based on a pragmatic and objective consideration of the current science concerning its efficacy as well as concerns about animal welfare. Because of the prominence of my comments it is obviously impossible for me to be considered impartial as a BBC presenter on this topic.

“Impartiality is a cornerstone of the BBC’s practice as a public service broadcaster and I am determined to protect this important aspect of its integrity. Thus I will not be taking part in any discussions about the cull during the forthcoming series of Autumnwatch and Winterwatch.

“Nor will I be presenting any items in the series about the badger cull because, as natural history programmes, they are not the right place for discussions about matters of national public policy. I will however continue to make my views known when I feel it is appropriate to do so. (link)

Another example of how thought is controlled in nominally democratic societies†.

————————

* – Professor John Bourne, chair of the Independent Scientific Group on Bovine TB: “I think the most interesting observation was made to me by a senior politician who said, ‘Fine John, we accept your science, but we have to offer the farmers a carrot. And the only carrot we can possibly give them is culling badgers’.” (link)

† – I’m indebted to David Edwards, especially his book Burning All Illusions (aka Free To Be Human) and his work with David Cromwell on the UK website Media Lens for this insight and others.

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2 Responses to “‘Ineffective and inhumane’ – or in denial?”

  1. Vanessa Says:

    Hi Ian,
    Long time no comment here, definitely to my detriment: I’m realising how much good stuff I’ve been missing. This is a very well-thought-through analysis of the so-called justifications for and media complicity with the insane obsession with culling badgers (culling? I meant to say killing … or murdering .. or why not massacring?).

    I had seen Chris Packham’s heartfelt tweet but did not know that he’d subsequently been silenced like that: it would be scandalous, were it not so horribly normal.

    It so happens that media disinformation, framing and thought control are back at the top of my own list at the moment. Good to have this to fan my flames higher – thank you.

    Hope all is well with you.
    Vanessa

  2. Ian M Says:

    Hi Vanessa, thanks for re-visiting and for the kind words.Good to see you writing again too, and nice to see the latest offering picked up by Resilience.

    I had seen Chris Packham’s heartfelt tweet but did not know that he’d subsequently been silenced like that: it would be scandalous, were it not so horribly normal.

    Yeah, typical flak; a short sharp shock to stop the sheep from straying too far from the herd… He allowed himself to be silenced too, though. Clearly the media, including the BBC, is not behaving impartially on this topic (or any other topic where power feels threatened) and Packham’s comment about impartiality being the ‘cornerstone of the BBC’s practice’ either shows incredible naivety or a tactical willingness to back away from the truth in order not to alienate his employers and endanger his job. Not saying I blame him or would do any better in his situation, just… it stinks. And the public debate suffers as a result. Which is the whole point.

    Anyway, let’s stop that rant in its tracks!

    kind regards as ever,
    Ian

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