Outside the Bubble, we’ve all had enough of the British media



In 2008, I attended a press conference arranged by an anti-hunting group at the House of Commons. Tim Bonner, the Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance also went along. The theme of the event was the monitoring of hunts by self-appointed monitors and accusations of attacks on them by angry hunt supporters.

At that time, Ann Widdecombe was one of the few Conservative MPs who opposed hunting and appeared on the panel. When the matter of harassment of hunt monitors was raised, Ms Widdecombe recalled how, when she was prisons minister, she’d had experienced a similar situation during a demonstration, saying, “I was in a car being very violently booted and it is terrifying.”  She made it clear that this was nothing to do with hunting. The next day, the headline in the Mirror told of how she was “attacked by pro-hunt bullies.” Despite an official complaint from the Countryside Alliance, there was no retraction or explanation. The newspaper had unashamedly made up the story to suit its own anti-hunting agenda. Fake news has been around well before Donald Trump’s adoption of the phrase.

It wasn’t the first time a story had been fabricated to suit a particular view. While the Hunting Act was still making its way through the parliamentary process, an article appeared in The Times which seemed to totally demolish any argument for the use of scenting hounds. Research had been undertaken in America that proved hunted foxes experience extreme pain and can be damaged internally through the chase. Devastating news for the hunting world, apart from the small fact that it wasn’t true. Even when Dr Terry Kreeger, the author of two quite separate studies which mysteriously had been rolled into one, wrote to the newspaper stating in the strongest terms that his work did not find that conclusion, there was no retraction. The damage had been done and this false “science” continued to be quoted even at a parliamentary inquiry. 

It doesn’t take a genius to know that many opposed to hunting have ulterior motives well beyond the alleged cruelty of the practice. For example, when challenged about his support for a hunting ban, the Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner said, “This has nothing to do with animal welfare. This is for the miners.”

Such views are not restricted to hunting. Earlier this month, The Times published another article, which reported on predator control and the motives behind the work of gamekeepers. It was supposedly based on validated research undertaken by a team at Exeter University, ‘Understanding diverse approaches to predator management amongst gamekeepers in England’. While it touched upon the illegal killing of raptors, something condemned by all the gamekeepers interviewed, the newspaper story reported it differently under the headline, “Gamekeepers have felt ‘under pressure’ to kill illegally”. Again, the author of the study, Professor Robbie McDonald, was prompted to correct the newspaper in the clearest of terms, “This is not what our research found. Our focus was on legal predator management. We found that keepers were not particularly motivated by employer pressures but had diverse motivations, including a sense of custodianship for game and non-game wildlife.”

To many, the events over the past few days are no surprise. In that respect, you could say that Dominic Cummings is in the same category as hunting and shooting. Like those field sports, Cummings has people who strongly dislike him even within the Conservative government despite, or because of, the fact that he helped achieve two outstanding victories in Brexit and the 2019 general election. Others, including the Prime Minister, see his worth. It’s obvious that a combination of differing motives are packaged by groups and some in the media for easy public consumption; field sports are alleged to be ‘cruel’ and Cummings is alleged to have ‘broken rules’. 

The Downing Street press conference heard Cummings give a detailed and rational account of his movements and the sensible precautions he and his family took. The rules allow for exceptional circumstances and any parent would say the well-being of a child easily falls into that category. The police say that no law has breached, yet the media thinks otherwise. Journalist after journalist lined up to ask basically the same question, showing that they either didn’t know or were deliberately misconstruing the very rules they took such delight in quoting.

So desperate are some in the mainstream media to attack Dominic Cummings that an extreme left-wing ‘news agency’ Novara Media was invited onto Sky News. Like many in the anti-hunting world who can’t consider even the remotest possibility that they might be wrong, senior editor Eleanor Penny accused Cummings of breaking the law, but when asked to clarify, felt that, “we shouldn’t be focussing on the detail of Cummings’ account”. No detail of how the law was supposedly broken? No evidence to justify a charge? What, then, should we be focussing on?  Guilty simply because she thinks he is? Well thank you, Ms Penny, your arrogance, ignorance and sheer bigotry reveal perfectly how the left likes to dispense justice.

Just as the case against hunting starts to falter when closely examined, the case against Dominic Cummings begin to diminish when properly analysed. How is it that others, such as the SNP’s Ian Blackford and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock, can travel long distances, without any justification of protecting a child, and yet can avoid the same media frenzy? Why do those journalists and photographers crowding outside Cummings’ house and clearly breaking the 2-metre rule somehow see themselves as different to everyone else when it comes to abiding by that rule? Their presence cannot possibly be regarded as exceptional circumstances, so didn’t the police intervene? What possible justification can there be for a Sky News journalist to make a long trip to Durham to question the elderly and isolating parents of Dominic Cummings? 

And what about the major announcements from the government? The advance of a possible new anti-viral drug, Remdesivir, currently being trialled, which, in the words of Matt Hancock, could be the “biggest step forward in the treatment of coronavirus since the crisis began.” and the details of shops being able to re-open? Both issues are of major relevance to the lives of ordinary people, yet both are totally overshadowed by the media’s obsession with Cummings.

What’s really puzzling is that people who are normally intelligent can’t see what they are doing to their profession. It seems that their true motives in trying to remove Dominic Cummings has blinded them to everything else, prompting former BBC and ITV journalist, Anna Brees, to say of the questioning of Cummings, “This is truly unbelievable…as a journalist I would have refused to do this”.

It’s ironic that the newspapers responsible for breaking the Cummings story, the Mirror and the Guardian, are both vehemently anti-hunting and yet, along with numerous others in the media, are happy to orchestrate the relentless hounding of this man and his family. 

Whether or not you like hunting or Dominic Cummings is irrelevant here. What is important is being able to trust the media, at least to some acceptable degree, to handle issues in a fair and balanced manner and not to have ulterior motives. What is the point of commissioning an opinion poll on who should or should not be sacked when the majority of the public have no idea of the details, if not to whip up public feeling in a particular direction? The government says Cummings did not break the rules, the police say he did not break the rules, but BBC Newsnight’s Emily Maitlis blatantly states that he did, adding “The country can see that.” Really? No one I’ve spoken to agrees with that statement. So much for our honest public service broadcaster.

If Dominic Cummings is forced out it will be a victory for a strange combination of those with a personal axe to grind, a ragbag of left-wing groups who see an opportunity to divide a government with a strong majority and some in the media, who are happy to fabricate stories and regard themselves as the official opposition. Add in a whipped-up mob rule mentality and most would regard this as a fairly toxic mix. Whoever is sacked from government circles should be the decision of Boris Johnson or the relevant minister, not the media. There has been a constant call for transparency in government thinking, but we could certainly do with more transparency in the motives of those who provide us with supposedly ‘fair and balanced news’. 

As much as I disagree with the politics of Dennis Skinner, at least he was honest about his motives.

Jim Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to the Countryside Alliance. Follow him on twitter @jimbarrington