Let’s open up the debate, urges Angela Cassidy
The problem of what to do about bovine TB has been rumbling along for over 30 years, and for much of this time, debates have largely involved specialist agricultural and environmental interests.
However since the coalition government announced its intention to implement a culling policy in 2010, the issue has entered the mainstream, and debates have become even more contentious.
For the past four years I’ve been researching this controversy: analysing how mass media have covered the issue, and talking to the people involved to get behind the headlines.
Good Badger and Bad Badger
The first thing that stood out from looking at this coverage was quite how much time journalists spent quoting Wind in the Willows. Alongside the more expected issues of disease spread, economic costs, the scientific evidence, and broader rural/urban politics, most articles discussed badgers, and what people thought about them.
Two characters loomed large: not the Environment Secretary, the president of NFU, or even Brian May, but Good Badger and Bad Badger. Good Badger is liked because he ‘keeps himself to himself’, looks after his family, and symbolises the British countryside. Bad Badger, on the other hand, is a violent predatory pest, who causes trouble by digging under fields and foundations, and destroying crops.
Going beyond today’s media, I traced the origins of these figures in British culture. Good Badger features in a whole series of poems and stories, from an 11th century Anglo-Saxon ‘riddle poem’, through classic children’s fiction and natural history TV, to modern fantasy fiction and surrealist comedy. By contrast, Bad Badger makes only one appearance: in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Mr Tod, published three years after Wind in the Willows. ‘Tommy Brock’ is a dirty, deceitful creature, who kidnaps baby rabbits to eat for his dinner. Although Potter’s books are now often derided for their anthropomorphism, they were written to teach children basic natural history, and often feature predatory animals of one sort or another as villains.
It is clear that Bad Badger was also highly influential, particularly prior to the 20th century: badgers were legally designated ‘vermin’ by the Tudors, with a high reward offered for killing them. The now-illegal practices of badger digging (hunting) and baiting (staged fighting) were widespread and popular sports in the 19th century, and continue in some form even today. Looking at the archive of the Times newspaper, I found people arguing about whether badgers were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ pretty much as we do now, nearly a hundred years before any connection to bovine TB had been made.
Muddying the waters
So what does this imply for the controversy over badger culling and bovine TB? I think that this much older badger debate is fuelling contemporary arguments both for and against badger culling. This makes it much harder for both policymakers and mass media to address the real complexities of what the science might be able to tell us, never mind finding policy solutions acceptable to all.
If we need to have a debate about badgers (given how differently people seem to think about them, we may well), then let’s do that. But can we also make some space to talk about the rest of the picture in bovine TB policy? Issues like cattle movement, ecological consequences, the uncertainties of testing, the roles of international trade and global (human) health, the involvement or otherwise of farmers in policymaking, and the future shape of the British countryside are all being squeezed out of the picture. If this issue is ever going to move forward, we have to reframe bovine TB, and start understanding badger culling as a small part of a very much larger situation.
Rob Dawson divines mutual need.
When I left the world of full-time journalism for a career in media relations, I received the standard taunts about crossing to ‘the dark side’. That was about a decade ago, and the outward face of PR still gets a bad rap. For a profession supposedly built on spin, the obvious irony warrants a smile.
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting this year, the Canadian government was accused of ‘muzzling’ its own scientists by ensuring that all messages from scientists are along ‘approved lines’. It’s an extreme example of comms-gone-bad, but highlights why there can be mistrust. When news becomes too carefully managed, it can cast a shadow on the whole industry. So is the answer to cut out the middle man?
The reality is that there are no generic battle lines drawn between news desks and press offices. In general, the two camps understand each other. Having experienced both sides, the shared objective of highlighting UK research ensures that the majority of good science comms professionals and good journalists find a relationship that works.
As a journalist, press officers were a vital component of many of the stories I produced. Whether I needed a fact or figure, an independent voice on a topic of interest or a human story, I had several ‘phone a friend’ options that could reliably supply under tight deadlines.
I’ve found comms to be about facilitation rather than obstruction. The teams I’ve worked with have been driven by a genuine desire to highlight relevant news opportunities and have worked hard to encourage and equip scientists to promote their research and respond to journalists’ requests efficiently.
I’m not hoping to evoke sympathy for the communications profession, and we have bad apples as any industry does, but I do believe that the role most of us play is vital in the media landscape. I’ve experienced a range of sectors, including not-for-profit, healthcare and public sector, and one thing remains the same: I continue to work closely with journalists using a variety of means to help support science coverage.
A PR can help
Understanding a journalist’s needs is key. In my experience, any organisation that tries to obstruct what a scientist says will only make it into the media for the wrong reasons... if at all. It’s self-regulating – too much spin, and the relationship with a journalist ends.
Getting science into the public domain isn’t just down to chance though. Not all scientists were made for public speaking, and some people find the whole idea of interviews either intimidating or unnecessary. Some research can also be published under the news radar.
UK scientists have a range of options when talking to the media, but making use of a communications professional - at their university, affiliated organisation or funder - offers extra skills and some helpful navigation. Even a steer on the basics so that they feel confident to explain the relevance of their work, and understand the need for deadlines, can be hugely beneficial.
For those charged with handling news outputs from within an organisation, there is no doubt that we hope to make the most of the media opportunities to add value for the organisations we represent. However, rather than hampering direct contact between scientists and journalists, for the vast majority of us the opposite is true. It’s about being responsive and enabling.
Working with journalists to ensure UK science continues to hit the headlines is still a vital component of science communications. No matter how the relationship between journalists and PRs is viewed from the outside, there will always be times when we need each other.