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
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