By Dominic Dyer
The badger cull is one of the most controversial farming and wildlife policies in the last 40 years. Political support for the policy in Westminster has been draining away in the past six months, following the pilot culls in Gloucester and Somerset, which are now widely considered to have been a disaster on scientific, economic and animal welfare grounds.
However, under considerable pressure from farming and landowning interests, the government is clinging to the wreckage of the policy and plans to continue badger culling in Somerset and Gloucestershire this summer and possibly extend the cull into Dorset as well.
Throughout all the twists and turns of the badger cull debate, a key argument the government has used to justify the case for culling has been the apparent success in reducing TB in cattle as a result of killing badgers in the Republic of Ireland.
It is true that Ireland has experienced a decline in bovine TB since the late 1990s, a period during which many thousands of badgers have been killed, but it is far from clear how much this has played a part in the reduction of the disease. Just across the border in Northern Ireland, there has been a similar decline in the rate of TB, but without a single badger being killed. This leads to the conclusion that it is improved farming measures, not badgers, that has made the difference.
Despite this, environment secretary Owen Paterson has continually used Ireland to maintain support for the highly controversial badger culling strategy. "Go to the Republic of Ireland where you had a spectacular increase in TB until they started to cull badgers," he told the Independent on Sunday recently. "They've gone down from 40,000 to 18,000 cases and it's dropping fast."
We might expect such statements from our politicians, who employ political advisers to find such examples to help them sell controversial and unpopular policies to the public. But what happens when our state-funded national broadcaster becomes a key element of this political propaganda campaign?
On May 31st 2013 the BBC placed an article on its website, 'How did the Irish badger cull play out?' In the article there was a clear suggestion that badger culling in Ireland had reduced incidences of TB in cattle. This led to a complaint to the BBC that the article was inaccurate and misleading, as there was not sufficient scientific evidence to make this connection.
At first the BBC refused to accept the article was misleading and its Editorial Unit did not uphold the complaint. This led to an appeal to the BBC Trust which, after over six months, finally reached a decision in January 2014. The Trust reached a conclusion that the language used in the article had "not been sufficiently precise" as it suggested that the badger cull might be a factor in helping control TB in cattle when this was "scientifically unproven". Damningly, it also said: "There was no conclusive evidence to show that the badger cull had been categorically responsible for any of this decline and so it was inaccurate to say that."
On this basis they partially upheld the complaint and confirmed the decision would be issued on March 6th. At this point the actions of the BBC take a worrying turn, which raises serious concerns about the influence of the government on our state-funded broadcaster. Firstly the BBC delayed the publication of the ruling until after a critical debate on the future of the badger cull policy in parliament on March 13th.
They then redrafted the ruling and weakened the language used, removing the reference to 'scientific' evidence. The ruling still says the story shouldn't have made the connection between badger culling and falling TB rates in cattle – but why the sudden change?
Further, BBC correspondents who had closely reported on the badger cull have apparently been told by their senior management they could not make any comments on the ruling. Also, during the period the BBC Trust redrafted and delayed the ruling, Owen Paterson gave an interview to Channel 4 News stating that the culling of badgers had significantly lowered TB in cattle in Ireland. This argument was also used by farm minister George Eustice to defend the government's cull policy in the debate in parliament on March 13th. Just last weekend the BBC reported new National Farmers' Union president Meurig Raymond saying the same thing.
All these statements were in direct contravention of the BBC editorial decision -but as the BBC Trust had delayed issuing the ruling, no-one was held to account for misleading MPs or the public.
To make matters worse, when the BBC finally issued its amended editorial ruling this week, it refused to remove the original website article which had generated the complaint. Under the threat of legal action the BBC has now placed a statement at the end of the article to confirm the contents had been subject to an editorial complaint, with a web link to the BBC Trust ruling.
However this has not been Auntie's finest hour. The fact remains that the BBC published a misleading article on a hugely controversial policy and took over six months to accept they were at fault. They then delayed the publication of the ruling and watered down its wording, raising serious concerns of government interference in the BBC editorial process.
The BBC is a hugely important broadcaster in both the UK and around the world. It has many hardworking dedicated journalists who produce news broadcasts of the highest standards.
If a complaint is made through the BBC editorial system and fully or partially upheld, the BBC should publish in the timeframe agreed, should not seek to redraft the ruling (under pressure from the government?), or gag its journalists from discussing the ruling. It should also ensure that the article or broadcast which has been subject to the ruling is removed and no longer accessible by the public.
The badger cull is a very sensitive and controversial issue with strong views on both sides of the debate. The BBC will always face some criticism in how it covers issues of this kind, but the appalling way it has dealt with the Irish badger cull ruling has done damage to its credibility as publicly funded independent broadcaster.
I can only hope the next time Owen Paterson or George Eustice make false claims over the Irish badger cull during a BBC interview, reporters armed with the BBC ruling will question them on it – and certainly not report it. This is what the public who fund the BBC expect and deserve from the world's leading state broadcaster.
Dominic Dyer is chief executive of the Badger Trust and policy adviser to Care for the Wild
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