Archive for January 24th, 2009

the BBC and DEC


protest outside broadcasting house


Blimey, auntie’s in trouble again. Looking at the Mail’s homepage just now the story falls well below the fold, with Ross’s return much higher up.  I’m sure I’m saying nothing new when I say that this story has done far more than a 10sec trail on BBC One would have done.  What’s interesting is how all the other broadcasters, Five, 4, and ITV all shifted their positions as soon as the story went large, none of those small ships want to get sucked down with the BBC on this issue.

When I was BBC homepage Picture Editor I we did a DEC appeal for Darfur. Even then I remember their were lots of hoops to jump through to get sign off.  I wanted to use this striking image taken by Karel Prinsloo/AP, and was overruled by someone ‘high up’.  I was told “we don’t do fly-covered children”. I’d only been in the job less than six months so capitulated. I can’t remember what we used in the end, and Wayback Machine is v slow this evening, but I seem to recall a dusky shot of a refugee camp or something.


So do different rules apply to the Middle East than to Africa? The BBC has now painted itself into yet another corner, the other broadcasters have done a 180 for either the right (genuinely care) or the wrong (saw an chance to stuff up the beeb) reasons, but it’s hard to see where the beeb will go with this now.  I bet they hold to their guns and try to ride it out, either that or hastily commission a panorama special. Personally, I think it should have broadcast the appeal, however to do so now would put humble pie as the plat du jour in the BBC canteen. We’ll see….

…And yet as stated at the top of the post, the desire is media coverage, and that DEC have had in spades. So much so that for the first time I’ve made a donation to DEC, not to have a pop at the beeb, but because I think it’s a genuine crisis, with a large portion of the blame laid at Israel’s door. I hope that it goes to genuine people that need it. Incidentally DEC have a lovely page up about the BBC still.

Pig Business, the movie.

On Monday a friend from Consumers International and I went to a private screening of Tracy Worcester’s film Pig Business at the cinema underneath Channel 4.

The film, part of the Big British Food Fight season, looks at the environmental and animal welfare implications of factory farming. Needless to say it concludes that such practices are a bad thing. It “aims to inform people about the true cost of cheap meat and its impact on every level of the food supply chain. [It aims to] stop factory farming and promote widespread sustainable farming practices that are independent, small scale, compassionate to animals and the environment”. So far, so good.  But I’ve a couple of comments about the night as well as the content of the film that I’d like to share with you.

The Dramatis personæ.

Former model, actress (Timelash) and environmental campaigner Tracy Ward is also the Marchioness of Worcester, and can apparently use the name of the town as her surname. Her husband Harry Somerset is heir to his father’s 52,000-acre estate worth £135m, nice. Zak Goldsmith was also present; making a couple of good point after the film was shown (he eschewed the microphone much to the chagrin of the cameraman trying to record the speakers). Finally vegetarian and PETA member Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders said a few words (don’t eat meat was her opening line?!) and directed applause at Tracy. Rosie Boycott was there, and a nice chap from Compassion in world farming, and finally some people from the marketing agency who went on about Facebook and stuff.

Perhaps it’s true what they say, that every debate in America is tainted by race, and that every debate in Britain is tainted by class, but one would imagine that these people aren’t exactly short of a few bob. So when the PR girl sent round ‘please donate’ forms I duly passed them on (to Leslie Ash who was sitting next to me). Politics comes in to play here, and though Zak and Tracy along with myself are all members of the Soil Association, personally I find taking what someone with 52,000 acres in the offing and a wealthy family background sticks in the craw somewhat. I would suspect this is the case for most people; their responses will naturally be ‘it’s alright for you’. This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t say it, or make films, or have causes and believe in things and try to change things, it’s just that I feel it, how shall I put this, it taints their argument.  She says she wants to protect ‘rural life’ but I’m always slightly dubious of rich, Tory, land-owning aristocracy who want protect rural life, who’s life are they protecting really? Yet I’m mindful that perhaps this is the way the messy world works nowadays, where pro hunting, referendum seeking, good food loving eco-conservatives like Zak and Tracy have views that overlap with more urban regenerating liberal/labour minded folk like myself like a Venn diagram drawn by a three year old. 

Roll the tape

Anyway, the great and the good aside let’s look at what was on the screen. I thought Bobby Kennedy Jr came across really well. But by going solely after Smithfield (who yesterday rushed out a press release) and spending a large amount of time in Poland and the USA, Tracy had little room left for UK focused implications. I would have liked to see these fleshed out a bit more. Because although the pollution of the Polish countryside is a terrible thing, I think that given the current situation that particular concern is going to come quite far down most people’s list.  Ditto the fact that EU taxpayers funded bail out for a water pipe to the tune of thousands of pounds because Smithfield had allegedly polluted a local water supply. I can’t remember the exact figure but it was pocket change compared to what we’ve just given the banks and everyone else in this downturn.

What’s moreI thought the film lacked bite, a killer punch, a money shot.  Four years and we got this?! I think a lot of the most arresting imagery came from Compassion in World Farming, and even when Tracy found direct evidence of the culling of weak piglets and discarding them illegally in the lagoon, she failed to put this to the Smithfield spokesperson she had access to, preferring to narrate a standard press release reply of ‘we aim for the highest standards of welfare…etc”.  I found myself thinking ‘well of course they’d say that”.  I really wanted her to go mustang, where was the fire, the anger? Tracy you should have had that guy by the plums!

Some other points that I felt detracted. Her kids. Tracy takes her teenage daughter (Lady Isabella Elsa Somerset) shopping for ham and it’s all a bit embarrassing.  Like the bit in Nigella show last year’s where her son Bruno is rolling along the pavement on his skateboard in full protective gear outside their million pound Georgian London town house to show how ‘normal’ they are.  The camerawork was a bit hit and miss in places, a few out of focus shots of interviewees lessened the impact and the editing was a little odd, but then this was a 77min version, and due to be cut down for release to 55min.

In conclusion, I felt detached not from the message, so much as from the narration. I felt, how can I put this? Itchy for this to work, but came away a little short changed to be honest. There’s a shot in the first 5mins of a farmer dropping a breezeblock on a pig’s head to kill it. Cruel yes, but it was never referred to again in the film. I’d have also like to have seen more UK focus, more on record interviews and a greater look at some solutions.  According to Compassion in World Farming the UK’s record of pig welfare is higher than the rest of Europe, but still not perfect.

Maybe it’s the genre that’s the issue, but like an action movie you know exactly how it’s going to pan out.  Big business bad, EU is wasteful, poor people taken advantage off, corporate greed, we know all this, what we want is why? Maybe it’s time to reboot the ‘issue led doc’?

Finally, though I’ve perhaps come across as a little critical above, I do know that making anything is hard work, especially when going up against multi-nationals and their law firms on your own, so Tracy should be commended on that. The film’s has its faults, but it is worth watching, which you can do on More4 at 10pm on the 3rd February and tell me what you think.  

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
January 2009