Rural Idiocy

The BBC’s coverage of the countryside is a biased, unquestioning, deferential disgrace.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 10th September 2015


Chris Packham should wear the Countryside Alliance’s attempt to have him silenced with pride. It’s another indication that, in the eerie wasteland of the BBC’s rural coverage, his is one of the very few voices prepared to tell us what is really going on.

The Countryside Alliance, which represents people who kill wild animals, demands that unless he stops speaking out against the persecution of wildlife, “the BBC’s only answer can be to remove the BBC from Chris Packham’s biography by refusing to employ him any more.”

I hope the broadcaster has more sense than to take this demand for censorship seriously. But, given the terror and anticipatory compliance with which it responds to any challenge from the elite, you never know. If it sacked him, we’d be left in the dark. For of all the BBC’s many failures, its unquestioning, deferential treatment of powerful rural interests must rank among the worst.

The countryside is now the arena for smash and grab accumulation of the crudest kind. City money is flooding in, as a number of extravagant tax exemptions, combined with farm subsidies, make rural land one of the most profitable speculative investments of modern times. Its price has risen fourfold in the past 12 years; the rise has been much faster, and steadier, than the growth in house prices.

The source of much of this money is hidden: vast tracts are registered in offshore tax havens. Like property investment in the cities, many of these purchases are likely to have a second function: the laundering of cash from organised crime. The concentration of land ownership is rising faster than at any time since the enclosures of the early 19th Century: 2% a year in England.

Many owners, both old and new, are squeezing places and people for everything they can get. Contract farmers strip the soil from the land and rip up wildlife habitats. The population of farmland birds and other wildlife is crashing. Rentier capitalism runs riot: a tenant farmer I visited last week tells me that her landlords expect a minimum of 10% return from any investment. Their houses and cottages are leased at rates that no one making a living from the land could afford.

Animal welfare on many farms remains in the dark ages. Pigs are treated as if they are little more than machines; chickens are packed into broiler sheds so tightly that each is allocated a space the size of an A4 piece of paper.

Whatever the landowners want, they seem to get. Exemptions from the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, that are scything through the invertebrate life of this country. A badger cull that defies all scientific advice. Uncapped farm subsidies and an utterly feeble cross compliance regime (the conditions attached to these payments). On Monday the National Farmers Union joined a protest in Brussels. The EU gave them €500 million to go away, on top of the €55bn European farmers already receive every year. When non-landowners try it, they get kettled by the cops, beaten and arrested.

In the hills, the shooting moors, whose ownership is one of the world’s purest expressions of conspicuous consumption, are being turned into grouse factories. Hen harriers and all other potential predators are massacred. The same goes for competitors, like mountain hares. Repeated burning causes the loss of soil carbon and major environmental change. Watersheds are destroyed, towns downstream become more susceptible to flooding. And the government’s response? In this age of austerity, it has almost doubled the public subsidy for grouse moors. The British countryside is becoming a playground for millionaires and their money.

But the BBC is almost silent on such issues. Its current affairs programmes are, for the most part, simply not interested. Their journalists (with one or two prominent exceptions, such as Roger Harrabin) know nothing about the countryside and care even less. As for the dedicated programmes, there’s an occasional space on Farming Today for an alternative voice, but otherwise, across the BBC’s output, the story is told almost exclusively from the point of view of the proprietors. The destruction, the rip-offs, the iniquities are airbrushed from the picture.

The worst offender is the BBC’s flagship rural programme, Countryfile. It portrays the countryside not as it is, but as we would like it to be. Timeless, unsullied, innocent, removed from the corruption and complexities of urban life.

Multi-millionaires in the lowlands, sitting on property that would make a banker blush, are portrayed on Countryfile as horny-handed sons of toil, eking a stony living from the land. Those who really do struggle – the hill farmers – are allowed to pretend that they make their living by selling sheep. In reality, in economic terms, sheep are purely ornamental: their production makes a loss. The real harvest is farm subsidies, without which there would be no farming in the hills at all. But this uncomfortable reality is never allowed to intrude upon the pastoral idyll. Viewers are kept in the blissful ignorance to which they are accustomed.

Dissonant, disconcerting issues are avoided like the plague, as the programme tiptoes past the crashing contradictions of rural policy in its insatiable pursuit of the twee. There are occasional spots of light, like the report it broadcast recently on soil erosion. But they are remarkable for their scarcity. Elsewhere, controversy is ignored, muffled or misrepresented. Countryfile would fit snugly on the lid of a chocolate box.

Any attempt to propose a series telling a different side of the story is dismissed out of hand by the BBC’s controllers, without discussion or explanation – as I know to my cost. There is no balance here, no impartiality, no attempt to challenge the comforting myths that shield patrimonial capital from public view. To single out Chris Packham, as the Countryside Alliance does, for engaging in “propaganda” is to miss the fact that this is a fair description of the BBC’s entire rural output.

As a result, despite great public enthusiasm for the countryside, we know almost nothing about it. Though we hand out over £3bn a year to landowners in Britain, many of them among the world’s richest people (including oil sheikhs and oligarchs who seldom visit, if at all), 55% of citizens here have never heard of the Common Agricultural Policy (the subsidies system). Though farming is by far the greatest terrestrial cause of the loss of wildlife, destruction of habitats and damage to soil and watersheds in the UK, 75% say they believe that farmers “have a beneficial effect on the countryside”. How could it be otherwise, when we are so carefully protected from hearing the other side of the story?

In other words, far from heeding the Countryside Alliance’s call for the censorship of Chris Packham, the BBC should clone him, as he’s almost the only corrective it currently possess to the saccharine, bucolic nonsense pouring from our televisions