By Ian Coghill, GWCT Chairman
There has been a good deal of fuss caused by the unpleasant comments about farmers, landowners and people who shoot and fish made by the regular BBC presenter Chris Packham. Many, I think, have missed the point. In my view the issue is not Mr Packham, who, in a country still at least relatively free, is entitled to say whatever he wants. The issue is, and always was, the BBC.
Everyone knows that the BBC is supposed to be impartial and most still assume it is. To protect this reputation, it has rules applying to regular presenters of news, current affairs and policy that prevent them making personal statements on controversial subjects or promoting pet causes or charities.
It was thus fairly obvious that when Chris Packham, a regular presenter on countryside and wildlife issues, made personal statements on controversial subjects and promoted his pet causes and charities, in this case the RSPB and League Against Cruel Sports, the BBC would be upset.
The BBC is seen by many as institutionally biased against the countryside. Treating it as one would expect from an organisation so long divorced from country life that it thinks The Archers is real, probably because it’s made in Birmingham, which from a London perspective is practically a village.
Most of the land surface of Great Britain is owned, managed and farmed by people who have no problem with traditional country sports, with an extraordinarily high percentage actually engaging in them. Many of these people, who happen to make up probably the most important stakeholder group from the point of view of conservation of species and landscape, are getting increasingly disenchanted with being treated as a whipping boy by the odder elements of the BBC.
Obviously you would assume that when a regular presenter on countryside and wildlife issues made gratuitously offensive remarks about these people, following an even more unpleasant attack on farmers who agree with culling diseased badgers and preceding a plea to join the LACS and the RSPB and ban driven grouse shooting, the BBC would at least have asked him to calm down a bit.
You would be wrong. The reasons why you are wrong are as simple as they are surprising. Contrary to what almost everybody thought, Mr Packham is definitely not a regular presenter for the BBC at all. Furthermore, the countryside and wildlife issues he deals with have nothing to do with news, policy and current affairs. Thus even if he did work for them regularly, which he doesn’t, the rule would not apply anyway.
According to the BBC, Mr Packham is a recurring presenter not a regular presenter. If I shot 50 days a season, I would be a recurring shot, not a regular one. At what point, I wonder, would I become a regular shot? A hundred days, perhaps? Apparently not. Mr Packham, we learn from the BBC, worked for them on 119 days last year.
If you take weekends, annual leave and bank holidays out of the year, most people work around 210-220 days – obviously this doesn’t apply to farmers, gamekeepers and other countryside workers, I’m talking BBC. Thus for over half the working year, Mr Packham was employed by the BBC, yet not only isn’t he an employee, his zero-hours contract isn’t even regular enough to be their responsibility.
This is, of course, simply nonsense. If Mr Packham, God forbid, caused a fatal accident and the Health and Safety Executive came over the horizon, telling them that it was nothing to do with the BBC because he or his company are recurring freelancers, so it was nothing to do with us, would elicit a wry smile and an interview under caution.
The idea that you can wash your hands of someone whose celebrity status you have created, whose links with your organisation you celebrate, who you are happy to be referred to as ‘BBC presenter Chris Packham’, and who you pay for at least 119 days in a single year is ridiculous. Claiming that they have nothing to do with you when they become gratuitously abusive about perfectly decent country people is frankly laughable.
What is in some ways much worse is that what he does is seen by the BBC as having nothing to do with policy and current affairs. That is a far greater concern than the periodic outbursts of a transient celebrity. The state of our countryside and the wildlife it supports, which is essentially what the programmes Mr Packham presents purport to address, has, according to the BBC and the BBC Trust, nothing to do with policy or current affairs.
That is the real scandal, and the BBC Trust is to be thanked for making it clear where it and the BBC stand. It turns out to be where we always thought but until now were never really able to confirm: as far away from the real countryside as they can get.
Westminster Debate on Driven Grouse Shooting