I can’t honestly remember a time when environmental stories have been so high up the news agenda- and for such a long period. Perhaps, it’s a reaction to the never-ending and increasingly tedious coverage of Brexit – which suddenly disappeared as the Easter recess began.
It was certainly excellent timing on the part of the Extinction Rebellion movement to commence its operations (mostly in London but elsewhere too) immediately Parliament had shut down, though I suspect it can only have been a coincidence. For whatever reason, the press jumped on Extinction Rebellion as the story to cover. And as the occupation of iconic landmarks such as Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Oxford Circus continued, day after day, the coverage seemed to increase, broaden and even on occasion start to delve into the underlying issues.
Of course there was a great deal of backlash and anti-environmental sentiment on show particularly from the hard right – and this reached a climax, almost as though a thunderstorm had built to the point where lightning inevitably struck, as the schoolgirl climate activist, Greta Thunberg, arrived in London for her speech to Parliamentarians, before which she had addressed the assembled crowds at Marble Arch.
Most egregious of those attacks came from author and Spectator columnist Helen Dale – a sort of female Aussie Toby Young if you will. She suggested Thunberg be interviewed by Andrew Neil, and that Neil should seek to use Thunberg’s Aspergers status as a way of attacking her and cause her to “have a meltdown on national telly.” As far as I know (Neil has blocked me on twitter) he has not yet condemned this appalling suggestion. As he wears his deep and very public scepticism of human-induced climate change like a badge of honour, it’s reasonable to assume he would relish the thought.
Acting outside the law
As the Extinction Rebellion melted away, it was replaced, albeit at a lower but still significant level of coverage, by a more “birdy” story. New enviro-legal kids on the block, Wild Justice, had made its first kill. Legal Action by WJ, recently set up by Chris Packham, Mark Avery and Ruth Tingay (all hopefully familiar names to regular readers, viewers and listeners of Lush content) had created a last minute panic inside the headquarters of Natural England and Defra, their boss department.
WJ’s case was that Natural England had been unlawfully applying the General Licences under which landowners, gamekeepers, farmers and even conservation organisations, cull wild birds for a variety of reasons. Without going into the details (which you can read on the Wild Justice website or Mark Avery’s blog) Natural England had been acting outside the law it is required to regulate and enforce, as indeed had some of those who had been killing birds under the Licences, though there is nothing to suggest that they had been doing so deliberately.
Now Wild Justice had expected Natural England to carry out the necessary changes to its procedures such that next year’s General Licences would be issued (or not) in such a way that they met the requirements of the law. Instead, Natural England announced that this years’ Licences, which were already being used, were to be revoked, almost instantaneously.
Naturally there was uproar from the farming and shooting lobby. The National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Countryside Alliance were first out of the starting blocks (as always) and much sturm und drang followed.
Radio Four’s Today programme hosted a discussion between Mark Avery and the Countryside Alliance’s Baroness Mallelieu – a Labour peer who is also a member of the Exmoor hunt and Staghounds. Mallelieu appealed to the soft hearts of R4 listeners by describing how newly born lambs will now have their eyes pecked out by rapacious crows and ravens, because farmers will no longer be able to shoot them. More interestingly, she suggested that NE had been acting unlawfully for years because “some paperwork got lost” in the hand-over from the old team at the Ministry of Agriculture. This is quite an argument coming from a distinguished QC and she didn’t sound as though she had even persuaded herself.
Conspiracy or cock-up?
What is clear though is that Natural England does nothing without it being signed off by Defra, so if the paperwork was lost, it was lost by Defra not NE. Had someone at Defra thought that this would be a good “green Gove” story ahead of what look like disastrous Local Elections for the Tory Party?
Conversely, had someone somewhere thought this would make a truly disastrous start to Tony Juniper’s reign as Natural England chair since he started his new job on the very same day as the story broke?
It’s always more sensible to assume cock-up rather than conspiracy (a corollary to Occam’s Razor) – and it may not be a coincidence that Natural England lost its long-standing and highly effective Legal Director a few weeks ago. That of course hasn’t stopped the pro-hunting press from spotting that Tony Juniper and Wild Justice Director Mark Avery know each other, and concocting a conspiracy from that little-known, but very public, fact.
Natural England is keeping its head down and not doing any press work – but as we know they don’t have a press office anyway, so how could they? Defra released a vague response, ostensibly from Natural England, on the Defra media blog. After that Defra felt it necessary to publish a further piece, including a hint of mea culpa from the acting chair at the time the decision was made, Lord Blencathra. Given his close links to the Countryside Alliance, you would think he might have anticipated (or even phoned a friend to find out) how this would play out. What is clear is that Natural England is taking the flak, and Defra is using them as cover.
Impartiality at the BBC?
Someone else who is taking the flak for this is Chris Packham. Packham receives constant attention from the shooting lobby which has been running a long campaign trying to get him sacked from his roles at the BBC. Three years ago, in an earlier echo of the Greta Thunberg attack I mentioned above, I wrote about some in the shooting industry who were seeking to exploit Chris’ Aspergers status as part of that campaign, and the support they received from the hunting lobby within Parliament. A change.org petition created by a member of the shooting industry has garnered over 100,000 signatures, demanding the BBC sack Packham for his work with Wild Justice. The Countryside Alliance thinks that Chris’ campaigning outside his BBC work mean he shouldn’t be given a platform by the BBC.
So far, the BBC has rejected these complaints on a number of grounds. Chris is very careful (bar the occasional slip) in keeping his views on wildlife, and campaigns he’s involved with, like Wild Justice or the People’s Manifesto, separate from his work for programmes like Spring or Autumnwatch. Whereas the more unsavoury end of the hunting lobby turn his gate into a gamekeeper’s gibbet.
It got me thinking – is there anyone else, who has a high profile job with the BBC where they are active politically outside their BBC work. And yes, you may have guessed who I was thinking of – the BBC journalist and broadcaster, Andrew Neil.
Neil has a very important role within the BBC’s political output, fronting political and current affairs programmes such as Politics Today. He interviews politicians from across the political spectrum – and in doing so gives them airtime and a platform. Nigel Farage for example has been interviewed by Andrew Neil many times. Neil is renowned for his aggressive questioning technique. It’s interesting to note how many of Neil’s utterances, from his interviews, get picked up and repeated in a glowing manner by the right-wing media – places like the Daily Express or gutter-press website Guido Fawkes.
Some commentators have suggested that Neil expresses a particular political view via his presence on the BBC – Scottish blog Bella Caledonia detailed Neil’s antics in light of his attack on Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who had done so much to reveal the dark story of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, Brexit and Trump. And it’s hard to avoid observing Neil’s glee at the prospect that Brexit would seriously damage the EU project, in this piece to camera shortly after the Referendum vote.
Neil chairs the board of the company which owns the right-wing magazine The Spectator and other magazines. The Spectator in particular publishes writers which challenge and attack climate change science (a view Neil supports); who sympathise with islamophobia (Roger Scruton for example, who was sacked from his Government advisory role for his repugnant views); who endorse far-right regimes such as Viktor Orban’s illiberal authoritarian democracy in Hungary, and who support a hard Brexit. Neil was Boris Johnson’s boss when Johnson edited The Spectator. Neil is also a big fan of the dark-funded corporate lobbyist “think tank”, the Adam Smith Institute.
Neil’s work for the BBC apparently sits comfortably within its editorial policy, though this is increasingly criticized even by former insiders, for pandering to the far-right. But he brazenly uses his twitter feed to endorse his hard-right political views, which have not changed since his enthusiastic support for Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s and 80s.
As former Newsnight presenter and LBC radio commentator James O’Brien said; “If [Neil], who publishes Nazi apologists, racists, climate change deniers, homophobes, misogynists and disaster capitalists in The Spectator, is considered impartial enough to present BBC political programmes, it’s unsurprising that his pocket fascists frequently appear on them.”
Have there been orchestrated efforts to investigate or challenge Neil’s role as one of the leading political commentators on the BBC; and on the basis of his many outside interests and his very robust views on politics? No: where complaints have been made, they have been unceremoniously batted away – indeed the BBC editors, and even their complaints department, leap to his defence.
It seems only Chris Packham is subject to this degree of vilification, for what he does, in the name of wildlife, beyond his BBC role.
You can show your support for Chris by signing this petition calling for the BBC to keep him on.