Best of bias

With fond mem­o­ries of the glory days of TV, when the small screen fea­tured plenty of coun­try sports, Adam Smith rues the fact that an­tis have ‘taken over the asy­lum’ and, it seems, the BBC

Sporting Shooter - - Keeper’s Country - WITH ADAM SMITH

The prob­lem is, you see, I can re­mem­ber Jack. Both of them. Jack Har­g­reaves, whose TV pro­gramme Out of Town ran for a quar­ter cen­tury from the 60s to the 80s and reg­u­larly cov­ered all man­ner of coun­try arts, crafts, skills, hus­bandry, shoot­ing and fish­ing be­cause, in those days, it was both ac­cepted and ac­cept­able.

And Jack Charl­ton, who headed a se­ries in the mid-80s called Jack’s Game, which showed us just about ev­ery as­pect of shoot­ing from rough-shot rab­bits to butt-bagged grouse, with pi­geons, pheasants, wild­fowl and most other game and fish in be­tween.

Jack Har­g­reaves was ev­ery­one’s un­cle, mor­ph­ing into a grey-haired grandad as the se­ries ap­proached its 25th year. A laid-back, pipepuff­ing, tweed-hat­ted gent with a slowly de­liv­ered fund of fas­ci­nat­ing in­for­ma­tion on all things coun­try, his half-hour early evening slot on South­ern TV was a must-see with au­di­ence fig­ures to match. No arm wav­ing, no histri­on­ics, no child­ish en­thu­si­asm and not a hint of po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, just good to watch, easy to ab­sorb and sur­pris­ingly in­of­fen­sive coun­try lore. How things have changed.

Jack Charl­ton, brother of Bob­bie, and also great at foot­ball, then a tall, lanky and rock hard Eng­land de­fender, loved his shoot­ing, spent much of his spare time at the sport and starred in his mini-se­ries which brought game and rough shoot­ing, along with fish­ing, to an en­rap­tured au­di­ence. ‘Oor Jack’ told it the way it was in his steady north-eastern way, noth­ing fancy, just show­ing those in­ter­ested how he en­joyed his sport along with all its finer points, and those in­ter­ested ap­pre­ci­ated the fact.

Yes, that’s right. Shoot­ing. On the telly. Reg­u­larly. Shame­ful, eh?

So what has changed? Pub­lic opin­ion, or the me­dia pre-pro­grammed to form it? Both I sup­pose, though it’s a chicken and egg sce­nario. Fifty or so years ago, the two Jacks were hugely pop­u­lar with loyal and pas­sion­ate fol­low­ers while most of to­day’s TV ‘wildlife’ stars were still in nap­pies or school and yet to reach the state of di­vin­ity they en­joy to­day.

What­ever, the world has changed and opin­ions with it, and even though the an­tis of that time shared the same be­liefs and pol­i­tics as ban the bombers, they were lower pro­file, not a prob­lem with lit­tle in­flu­ence. To­day, they seem to have taken over the asy­lum. To­day, we are con­tin­u­ously per­suaded that al­most all the field­sports – most espe­cially shoot­ing – are anti-so­cial and de­spi­ca­ble pas­times for rich and feck­less Tories, un­prin­ci­pled, un­think­ing boors whose sim­ple plea­sures rely on num­bers of dead birds thump­ing to the ground.

Although much is made of ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to present our sport in a bad light, di­rect con­fronta­tions are rare, the tech­nique is more the drip, drip, drip of neg­a­tiv­ity, as a re­cent Coun­try­file demon­strated. An item on heather burn­ing ap­peared to be fair and showed both sides of the ar­gu­ment, with a young keeper, the RSPB and the Moor­land As­so­ci­a­tion rep­re­sented, but the im­pli­ca­tion left in the air was that grouse shoot­ing was to blame for the moor­land fires.

Bet­ter still, the chap from the RSPB made it very clear that re­plac­ing heather (grouse) with sphag­num moss (top-qual­ity fire­proof bog and proper, di­verse wildlife) would, well, not kill two birds with one stone, but words to that ef­fect. And of course, the noble task of chang­ing the whole ecol­ogy of the Peak Dis­trict from oc­ca­sion­ally com­bustible moor­land to per­ma­nently wa­ter­logged bog was of pass­ing sig­nif­i­cance com­pared, by a happy co­in­ci­dence, to bring­ing an end to grouse shoot­ing.

So field­sports in gen­eral are anath­ema – although the same peo­ple fre­quently ac­cept fish­ing, per­haps be­cause watch­ing a float or a fly is the high­est par­tic­i­pant sport in the coun­try. It seems the BBC and oth­ers know very well which side their bread is but­tered. But that’s only a guess.

It wasn’t that long ago that game shoot­ing – yes, ac­tual game shoot­ing – was fea­tured on main­stream TV with no pub­lic back­lash.

What­ever, thanks to a me­dia headed by an in­ex­orably met­ro­pol­i­tan cor­po­ra­tion, this is how the pub­lic sees our sports – so quite why the Coun­try­side Al­liance are sur­prised by what they rightly de­scribe as the “re­lent­less BBC bias” on ru­ral is­sues in their quite le­git­i­mate com­plaints to Of­com is beyond me.

What do they ex­pect? Who is there to speak for our side of the scenery among all the fam­ily favourites and ex­perts lined up to an­thro­po­mor­phise our wildlife and mis­in­form the pub­lic? Who could join the TV stars with a thick enough skin and enough en­thu­si­asm for the sports which char­ac­terise and in fact shape the Bri­tish coun­try­side?

Ac­tu­ally, that ques­tion of ‘who is there?’ re­ally ought to have been an­swered by now. Ap­par­ently, our noble news pur­veyor rec­om­mended in its own 2015 re­view of coun­try cov­er­age that a ru­ral cor­re­spon­dent should be ap­pointed. Some­one hands-on with a gen­uine ap­pre­ci­a­tion and sym­pa­thy for the ru­ral way of life. Some­one who reg­u­larly hunted, shot or fished per­haps – if that were not a step too far – but at the least some­one with the abil­ity to ex­plain and en­thuse on his or her sub­ject and more par­tic­u­larly its ef­fects on and ben­e­fits to the en­vi­ron­ment and a coun­try­side which we can all en­joy.

Ev­i­dently this is a rare sort of an­i­mal – en­dan­gered, even – since, three years later, the post has yet to be filled. Again, that should not come as a sur­prise. Shame­ful dere­lic­tion of their self-in­spired duty, per­haps, but not a sur­prise.

Put sim­ply, why should they bother? The BBC have be­come bet­ter than clever at pre­tend­ing to lis­ten to their li­cence fee pay­ers, but the team in place are do­ing the job re­quired of them, the job they were care­fully cho­sen for, so why con­fuse the is­sue with di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence?

And when it comes down to pro­duc­tion re­al­i­ties, what chance would any­one truly suit­able, with the right sort of knowl­edge to tick all our boxes and join the BBC teams, have of get­ting along with the oth­ers? Twit­ter would melt.

Art­fully scat­tered among those many oth­ers are Chris Pack­ham, with a de­gree in zo­ol­ogy and a deep ha­tred of shoot­ing with the fre­quent fa­cil­ity to air his prej­u­dices. Tom Heap, with no par­tic­u­lar qual­i­fi­ca­tion but an en­tirely suit­able aver­sion to shot­guns to­gether with the bullish abil­ity to paint a neg­a­tive pic­ture at a stroke. Bill Od­die, a life­long lover of twitch­ing with to­tal in­tol­er­ance of any as­pect of any shoot­ing sport.

There’s Adam Hen­son, prob­a­bly the best of the lot with proper farm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Kate Hum­ble and Michaela Stra­chan, at­trac­tive – am I al­lowed to say that? – and suit­ably apo­lit­i­cal, and there’s the equally vi­va­cious yet en­tirely met­ro­pol­i­tan Anita Rani, de­spite the Bar­bour coat.

Oh, and Mar­tin Hughes-Games played his part too be­fore, so it is said, stand­ing down in a fit of no­bil­ity to al­low a more di­verse par­tic­i­pant to join the dis­ci­ples.

The sad re­al­ity is that, of all the other pop­u­lar pun­dits, only David Bel­lamy has the au­then­tic qual­i­fi­ca­tions and one-time TV charisma to qual­ify – and you prob­a­bly no­ticed that he’s dropped clean off the radar. This might, in part, be due to be­ing a pa­tron of the NGO, but prin­ci­pally it was his views on cli­mate change clash­ing with all the ‘ex­perts’ em­ployed by the BBC which got him writ­ten out of the script.

Just out of in­ter­est, it’s worth not­ing that while David Bel­lamy has two pro­fes­sor­ships in botany to his name, few, if any, of the BBC’s cli­mate ex­perts have prop­erly ac­cred­ited cli­ma­tol­ogy qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Not needed, you see, only the be­lief counts. Lots of coun­try folk on the other hand, more used to be­ing out­side and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the changes for real, might just call it weather!

So yes, in­deed, by fair means or foul, the way in which the BBC want their view­ers and lis­ten­ers to see and un­der­stand the coun­try­side is all cut and dried. And while it’s un­der­stand­able for the Coun­try­side Al­liance to slam the BBC bias on ru­ral is­sues, noth­ing seems likely to change.

Un­less some­thing rad­i­cal hap­pens, the BBC will present their sani­tised view of our coun­try­side to an avid au­di­ence with only fleet­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, like an oc­ca­sional ram­ble and the odd lamb chop or salad of leaves, and a lust for as­so­ci­a­tion, how­ever fleet­ing, with stars in any shape or form.

Their view­ers – espe­cially the young ones – are, for our nan­ny­ing and vastly over­paid pro­pa­gan­dists so keen to pro­mote their new re­li­gions, the per­fect stu­dents.

‘Who is there to speak for our side among all the fam­ily favourites lined up to an­thro­po­mor­phise our wildlife and mis­in­form the pub­lic?’

A Coun­try­file episode on heather burn­ing man­aged to leave view­ers with the im­pres­sion that grouse shoot­ing was to blame for moor­land fires

Jack Har­g­reaves reg­u­larly cov­ered all man­ner of coun­try sports on the BBC

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