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“Simon Says” – A new blog entry from DWT’s Chief Executive, Simon Cripps.

September 2, 2016


In this new blog at the beginning of each month I hope to be giving some insights into what goes on behind the scenes in conservation and environment.  I will sometimes be thought-provoking and even controversial, but I hope not divisive.  In conservation many things are not as simple as they appear. The views expressed here are not necessarily the policy of DWT, but are my own thoughts laid out for you to judge – for better or worse.

Trumping up a story

As one of DWT’s spokespeople on a range of issues I regularly deal with reporters and the media.  Generally speaking I like them, as my daughter is a journalist on a national newspaper and that profession would be my second choice of career if I didn’t enjoy my current job so much.

That said, I am seeing two worrying trends coming into reporting, especially at a national level, and we in the environment movement have to deal with them a lot of the time.  The most obvious example of both is Donald Trump (more of him later), though I have many examples of our own.

The first trend works like this.  Somewhere deep in the bowels of broadcasting or press organisations, shadowy producers have decided that public disagreement is what makes the best news and should be encouraged at all opportunities.  The implications of this are that instead of stories that get to the heart of the matter, we get stories that focus on the nature of the disagreement.

This is especially true of, for example, the badger culling debacle.  Time and again the media report it wrongly despite our best efforts.  First they go to a farmer who perfectly reasonably talks about the damage bovine TB is causing to his livelihood and his cattle.  He goes on to say that something needs to be done.  Again all very understandable.  Then they come to us and effectively ask why we want to stop farmers from protecting themselves against this terrible disease.  That’s not the point!  We don’t.  The point is that the scientific evidence base says culling badgers is unlikely to help and will likely make matters worse.  We’re just saying that there are better ways to achieve a more effective result for both farmers and wildlife (such as vaccination of badgers and cattle) that don’t impact so heavily on wildlife.  We agree with farmers on almost everything including that it is a terrible disease which needs to be sorted out, and that badgers do cause some of the infections.

A large part of the media aren’t though interested in what we agree about, what the disagreement actually is, or the solutions.  They prioritise controversy and an argument because that’s what the public want.  I don’t think they do.  True, there has to be an interesting story, but dwelling on the differences rather than the solutions leads to divided communities and unnecessary animosity.  We’ve seen the same thing happen from climate change, through the NHS, to Trump vs Clinton.

The second trend is a consequence of this.  If you buy into the need for disagreement to gain public attention, which we all have to in order to get air time, then the more controversial you are the more the media will come to you rather than someone else, and the more air time you’ll get.  At DWT, like so many organisations, we need profile to gain support and understanding for the conservation work we do.  If however we go down the route of saying controversial, inflammatory comments to get attention we lose our credibility and our ability to find a solution in partnership with others.  If we don’t get emotive then we risk being bypassed by the press in favour of someone who is prepared to say what the press wants to hear. Trump works this par excellence by saying extreme, unsubstantiated statements to get huge amounts of air time and then quietly back-tracking later off-screen.

It is interesting to observe that our local media (radio and newspapers) are far less likely to go down this route because they have to work within and for local communities.  Also they have more time to ask in-depth questions and get to the heart of the matter.  The quality of journalism in BBC Dorset, for example, is high because you don’t have to talk in sound-bites.

So there’s our conservation conundrum.  If we stick to credible, rational, evidence-based statements (which we will) that leave the door open to finding a solution, then we might get less time on air and less print space.  Our aim then is to find different angles and interesting aspects so that we keep the pressure up until we get a good result for nature and we maintain our profile so we continue to get the support that is so vital for our work.  What we really want is for the media to become less divisive and trust in the intelligence of the public, so we find out what the issues really are.



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