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.

A scene from BBC Panorama, February 14th 2022

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.

The best Tweet I saw, which sums up my feelings too, came from agricultural PR and comms pro Amy Jackson (@Oxtale). She calls on the industry to say: “NO MORE”. I recommend reading her thread here.

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.

Our Just Farmers group workshop in Bristol, February 2022

6 Comments »

  1. I read your essay. I didn’t see the documentary, but the still photo gives me an idea of how revolting it probably was. A couple of my thoughts:

    * Be careful how much credibility you give the undercover photographers/videographers. We have had instances in the US where the videographers were complicit in the abuse of dairy calves. * If animal abuse IS a real problem in UK’s agriculture industries, you (UK) might use our Beef Quality Assurance Program (BQA) as a model in “righting the ship”. It has been a good tool for educating our producers and changing production practices as well as improving perception of the consuming public, not to mention improvement of animal welfare and reduced losses to the industry due to bruising etc.

    Larry Stomprud

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Larry! Great to hear from and thank you for reading. There have been cases in the UK too of activists ‘staging’ scenes of cruelty or negligence (pulling dead pigs out of bins and putting them in pens of livestock etc). However, in this case, the footage was verified by the BBC and included an interview with the undercover reporter. We do need something in the UK to help root out ‘bad farms’ – too often it’s left to outsiders to provide the evidence. The industry needs to step up more and police itself if we are to build real and lasting trust with consumers. Hope you are well Larry! The book comes out on March 3rd. I think you can buy it on Amazon in the US: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Divide-relationship-crisis-between-country/dp/0857839721

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Anna.
      First of all I’d like to congratulate you on your hard work to bridge the divide between town and country people. We livestock farmers feel like a minority at the moment. I listened to your Nuffield presentation at the Nuffield Conference in 2018. Very well presented. Well done.
      Regarding the panorama program that is mentioned above, I’d l like the chance to straighten out a few bits of information. After all the panorama farmer is my brother. We are not in business together, I run a separate farming business to him and a different system. As a family, we are in total shock and disbelief as to what’s happened. Undercover reporting is one thing, but if the level of cruelty was so bad then why wasn’t the authorities informed sooner? Or more to the point, why didn’t the undercover reporter step in to 1) offer assistance, 2) tell the others to stop or try something different?
      Most of the footage if not all can only be explained as being set up. The guy taking the footage disappeared over night last autumn without explanation. What’s suspicious though is that another 2 workers who are in most of the footage also left the farm within a fortnight of him leaving without much warning. There are other bits of footage also on the animal right activists website that are horrific but again edited or just made to look bad. One such video shows a cow bleeding profusely out of mouth whilst being stomach tubed. If the cow had internal bleeding then blood would be coming out of the nose. This is not blood at all. It is a high energy drench given to some cows after a difficult calving and it happens be be raspberry red in colour. (Bad choice of colour I know). There are some 800 other cows on that farm, it’s a shame that the bbc guys didn’t bother turning up to see how they looked. As it stands my brothers licence to sell milk has been removed by red tractor. He has already sold 160 at a local cattle market (with everyone commenting on how well they looked) not only to stem the loss of cash but also because 2 key and loyal workers living in town (yes from town working on a dairy farm!) have left this week fearing for their and their families safety after receiving vile abuse online from animal rights fanatics. Panorama HAS NOT exposed bad farming practices, it’s just closed a viable business down with “trial by kangaroo court.” Wouldn’t it have been better to go the relevant authorities first?
      And to air the program on the week of the anniversary of dads death as well really does show up their research skills.
      And if they dug deeper they would have also discovered that there was a farm one mile away that used to be owned by the great bbc news presenter Jonathan Humphreys. He was driven to despair when he did his own investigation by hiding in the hedge to find his cows weren’t being milked every day by the farm manager he employed. Dad bought most of the cows off Jonathan Humphreys and we eventually bought most of the farm off him as well. Funny how research stops when there’s an agenda and the story doesn’t fit the narrative.
      I look forward to hearing from you and I’ll be looking out for your book.

      Kind Regards.

      Gwyndaf Thomas.

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      • Hi Gwyndaf.
        Thank you for your comment and for being kind and respectful in your language – I can only imagine how raw and emotional this must be for your family.
        Secondly, thank you for sharing your perspectives – that can’t have been easy to write. I can tell you are going through the mill.
        I must tread carefully in my response because, as I’m sure you can appreciate, I am only a viewer. My blog is based on what I saw on Panorama, and my personal response to it as an audience member. I am not party to any of their research material or the details of the footage obtained by Animal Equality. Some of my thoughts are based on my own past experiences as a BBC researcher, director and producer. For instance, there are lots of rules and guidelines around using secretly filmed footage and I can only assume the Panorama team followed them. There would have been a rigorous journalistic process behind the scenes before they were permitted to use any of the footage, and as an investigative series, I would expect them to be very experienced with this kind of thing. But again, this is based on my own limited experience (I have never worked on Panorama or made editorial decisions on secret filming). There will be mountains of background information to this programme that neither of us can ever know, which makes it impossible for me to comment on your specific points. I do hope the programme makers answer your questions though – have you been in touch with them?
        I thank you Gwyndaf for sharing your thoughts, and giving me an insight into how it feels on the other side of this. It is very, very rare to hear directly from members of the farming community who have experienced this. Perhaps we will have the opportunity to discuss it at a conference or ag event sometime?
        With best wishes,
        Anna

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  2. The program raised some important issues, my issue is that an individual farmer should not be judged on the basis of one program, the issues raised on his farm should have been investigated by the authorities and the appropriate action taken. Hip hoists are not pretty to use, but are a quick and effective way to move a cow that has gone down on concrete onto a straw yard. The sooner that happens the less damage to ligaments etc, the sooner a cow recovers. We have a canvas hoist which can support a cow to stand, but we need to use the hip hoist to get a cow into the canvas one. We had a down cow which we lifted daily for 3 weeks, our vet had advised she wouldn’t make it, but she was standing with the aid of the canvas hoist, she couldn’t get up on her own. Until one day, our dog ran into her pen, was it the shock, the adrenalin rush, I don’t know, but up she got, and went on to have 4 more calves before going as a T.B reactor. Any action taken out of context can look worse than it is, I’m not condoning what we all saw, but we shouldn’t be too quick to judge .
    separating cows and calves will always be emotive, I am content with how we do it, but I would never claim its better than any other method, that would , in my opinion, be provocative.

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