A Victory for Nuance: Why dairy farmers should thank Panorama.
“It was bad. Real bad.”
Dad told me about BBC One’s Panorama ‘A Cow’s Life – The True Cost of Milk?’ as I drove home after running a Just Farmers workshop. I hadn’t had a chance to watch it, or follow much of the fallout, so I asked my livestock farmer father – who’s been working with cattle for more than half a century – to give me an overview. I could hear the shock and disgust in his voice: “These farm workers were kicking cows – really sticking the boot in – and they hoisted one cow and dragged her along the concrete on her face. They lifted her off the ground at one point!”
If Dad believed this documentary was unbalanced or peddling ‘anti-farming propaganda’, he would have defended that farm. But he didn’t even try. It was indefensible.
On a quiet Sunday morning, my partner Alex and I catch up on iPlayer. He fidgets on the sofa and tries to turn away, sickened:
“I don’t think I can watch this.”
“We have to watch. We drink milk.”
He grimaces. I press my hands to my mouth, tears falling down my face. “Stop!” I hear myself saying out loud, pleading with the blurry-faced figure on my screen who’s kicking a stricken cow in the stomach.
I am appalled, but also gripped. This is an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism. Reporter Daniel Foggo and Producer/Director Tom Jenner have, in my opinion, done an outstanding job – asking all the right questions and pushing the story beyond images of cruelty and into the complexities of cow/calf separation, dairy supply chains, farm assurance standards, and the unacceptable price paid by cows and farmers so we can all drink cheap milk. I’m reassured to see trusted experts among the line-up of contributors – Welsh dairy farmer Abi Reader (a rapidly rising star at the NFU), animal welfare academic Professor Andrew Knight, and industry analyst Ian Potter. I can see the enormous research effort that has gone into securing access to Taynton Court Farms in Gloucestershire, to film cow/calf separation with total transparency. That would have taken careful negotiation and sensitivity. Knowing the pressure on programme budgets at the BBC, it’s great to see time was given to this. The full and frank interviews with farmer James Griffiths and David Finlay of The Ethical Dairy provide wider context and balance. In my view, the Panorama team produced an intelligent exploration of complicated issues, that dug much deeper than ‘shock value’. When Animal Equality brought them that undercover footage, they had their programme right there. They could have made 30-minutes of clickbait telly based on a binary ‘Scary Dairy’ debate. Viewers – and farmers – should be thankful they wanted more than that, and put the work in to tell a bigger story.
Of course, nuance doesn’t do very well on social media.
Among the top Tweets under #Panorama, an ordinary consumer called Lee from Darlington vows never to buy cows’ milk ever again. He is retweeted 689 times and gets 3,139 likes. While I fully respect Lee’s decision, I don’t think it was the programme’s intention to make viewers turn their backs on dairy. It asked if we’d be willing to pay more for milk – but the nuance of that question seemed to get lost. After all, #GoVegan is a far simpler message to Tweet.
I check the NFU Dairy account – they haven’t posted anything about the programme at all. Neither has the main @NFUtweets account. This strikes me as odd. If the union felt for a moment that the programme was unfair or biased – like the 2019 backlash against the BBC’s ‘Meat: A Threat to Our Planet?’ – social media would be on fire with outrage. In this case: silence. No acknowledgement of the nuance whatsoever. Meanwhile, the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers (RABDF) calls Panorama “sensationalist” and, in my view, unfairly accuses it of highlighting “one farm where inexcusable abuse was witnessed.”
Giant, huge, missed opportunity to show the industry is serious about animal welfare.
She’s right – we need way more accountability in our farming industry. If farmers hate activists creeping around with undercover cameras, then stop leaving the job of uncovering cruelty to activists creeping around with undercover cameras. Farmers, farm vets, herdsmen and women – you are the people who spend all your time on farms – use your eyes, trust your instincts, call someone, report what you see. And I don’t mean shopping the stressed-out farmer who’s had one bad day – I’m not naïve about farm life. I grew up on one. I mean sustained cruelty; toxic cultures hiding in the shadows – like what had been allowed to take root on this farm. If it feels wrong, it probably is. Call it out.
I hope farmers are finding the confidence to say ‘no more’. I got chatting to a large-scale Cheshire dairy farmer at a livestock auction recently. She told me how a frustrated drover at another market had hit one of her animals coming off a trailer. She rounded on him: “If you ever raise your hand or your voice to my cattle again, I will stop using this market immediately.” This is a great example of how farmers can use their economic power to champion animal welfare. She’s never had any more problems.
Back to the reason why I missed to catch Panorama live.
I was in Bristol running a Just Farmers workshop. It was our first face-to-face event in the city since the start of the pandemic and it was a wonderful feeling to bring 12 farmers together (and one on Zoom who was stuck at home with Covid). We spent two days learning about the media, understanding what makes headlines (and why), how to pitch story ideas, and each farmer had a go at being interviewed by a professional journalist. It’s about building communication skills in a notoriously shy sector – helping individual farmers find their voice and giving them the confidence to share their stories with the media. The farmers had travelled miles to be there – a crofter from the far north of Scotland, car-sharing sheep and pig farmers from Kent, a free-range egg producer from Mid Wales and – interestingly – three dairy farmers representing three different production systems.
We’ve never had so many dairy producers in a group before and it’s a slightly spooky coincidence considering what was being broadcast in the same week. Susie Lewis runs a conventional herd in Shropshire. Sophie Gregory produces organic milk from 370 cows on the Devon/Dorset border. Alistair Macbeth milks 40 cows in a calf-at-foot dairy in Derbyshire.
It was Susie who drew the group’s attention to the Panorama programme – she’d managed to catch some of it and said she was surprised by how balanced it was. At no point did she, nor any of the dairy farmers, become angry or defensive – they were up for talking about it, sharing perspectives, and listening to each other.
The point I’m trying to make is this: there is no war here. The vast majority of dairy farmers are as shocked by what they saw on Panorama as I am, or you are. Rather than making it a fight between pro-dairy and anti-dairy, let’s stick with the nuance and face up to the complexity of the real shit-show: a ‘look the other way’ culture that has given a minority of cruel bastards a place to hide. Unsustainably cheap milk. Unfair contracts. The awesome corporate power of retailers and processors bearing down on struggling family farms. And those poor cows who are burning out just trying to keep up.