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From Private Eye
August 17-30 2007

Nothing better illustrated how difficult the media find it these days to relate to the realities of the farming world than a chilling interview on the Today Programme just after 8 a.m. on Saturday 11th August.

John Emerson was the free-range farmer at Hunts Hill near Pirbright who three days earlier had seen every one of the 362 pigs, sheep, cattle and goats on is farm destroyed by DEFRA as a "precautionary" measure, after one of his pigs developed a slight limp. Two days later, DEFRA's FMD experts announced that his dead animals had all tested negative.

So ill-briefed was the Today presenter, Caroline Quin that she began the interview by suggesting that he had lost "362 cattle". Politely Mr Emerson corrected her. As their exchanges continued, it became clear that they inhabited two quite different worlds.

Ms Quin seemed remarkably unconcerned by the fact that Mr Emerson's entire stock had been destroyed on the basis of an official blunder, and that he had just seen his entire life's work wiped out for no good reason. She blithely mentioned "compensation", as if this would make up for what he had lost. When she asked him what he was up to at that moment he began to explain that normally at that time on a Saturday morning he would have been packing up to take his meat to market, but now he had nothing left to do.

This glimpse of how completely Mr EMerson's life had been turned upside down floated right past the Today presenter as she stuck to her chosen brief that not all in the farming world was "doom and gloom". She then moved on to interview Sean Rickard, the former NFU economist who is one of the BBC's favourite "farming experts", to put over the meesage the Today programme wanted its listeners to hear: that there is still plenty of money to be made out of farming, by the type of agri-business favoured by the NFU and Dr Rickard.

Almost everything about the FMD outbreak of August 2007 has been a tragic reminder of just how little has changed since the 2001 epidemic. As a symbol of DEFRA's catastrophic incompetence, it was of course only too appropriate that the virus should have escaped from its own cash-starved and rundown laboratory at Pirbright, which laughably is the "world reference centre" for research into FMD. Even though this latest outbreak seems fortunately to have been so limited, Defra has still struck another devastating blow at the livestock industry, with its ban on the movement of animals (except for slaughter) anywhere in England. If the media in general floundered in their attempts to understand what was going on, at least one comprehensive source of information has been available to anyone wanting to follow in detail the convolutions of this latest episode. One of the few bright spots of that dark time in 2001 was the website, run from near Bordeaux by an expatriate English teacher, Mary Critchley. Within weeks she had established warmwell as the most reliable clearing-house for expert information on the FMD crisis, and miraculously, having made contact with all the most authoritative scientists in the field, she has remained in business ever since.

Yet again in recent days, Miss Critchley has been working overtime, telling us a great deal more than we learn from the BBC.