NEWS: Is the BBC the friend or foe of the countryside?

Does the BBC hate country people or is the Corporation a friend that needs to be treated with respect? Alison Stephens reports on a debate about the BBC's relationship with the countryside at this year's CLA Game Fair.

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Speaking at the CLA Game Fair in Leicestershire on Saturday (26 July), representatives from countryside organisations accused the BBC of not covering the countryside enough. They argued that rural communities should do more to promote their activities and force the BBC to increase its coverage of countryside issues, but they said the rural community needed to do more to promote itself to journalists and programme-makers.

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Speaking at a Countryside Alliance debate on whether the BBC was a friend or foe to the countryside, Simon Hart, Countryside Alliance chief executive, claimed the BBC’s general programming on the countryside was often poor.

“They are about rural life rather than for rural people. It does have some good things like the Accidental Angler and Clarissa and the Countryman, but then the BBC goes ahead and ruins it. Molly Dineen’s award-winning documentary The Lie of the Land was rejected by the BBC before Channel Four aired it.

“I believe the BBC has an obligation to do things for minorities and for communities rather than about them and I think that’s a fundamental misjudgement the corporation has made over a period of years.”

While Mr Hart was critical about the amount of rural programming, he said farmers and countryside organisations should do more to promote their messages and make the countryside newsworthy.

“We are not being clear and articulate enough and our attitude has brought up a barrier between our cause and their agenda,” he said.

“We have got to get over that. This is about us, not them. We have made progress in the last ten years, but changing media attitudes doesn’t happen overnight, we need consistent, measured, sophisticated techniques.

Mr Hart said the rural sector was often poor at assessing the news agenda and stressed the importance of promoting good stories ‘at the right time’.

“When things go wrong we can’t go complaining about the BBC for covering it,” he added. “That’s the nature of news.

“We are trying to convince a cynical media, public and politicians about farming and rural issues such as foxhunting and we won’t do it by brow-beating – we need to educate.”

Farming Today goes out at an unearthly hour so no one can actually hear it, The Archers has an occasional resemblance to rural life, while Countryfile has absolutely no resemblance,” he said.

Lembit Opik, MP for Montgomeryshire, agreed agricultural and industries needed to work with the BBC to help journalists understand often complicated rural issues, as well as to promote newsworthy, positive stories.

“Take the foxhunting debate. The BBC initially took a pro-ban decision because it was reflecting the mood of the country. We changed that by lobbying and the BBC became more balanced.

“The BBC has been very cautious over country pursuits. If we think that’s unfair then we have to take the countryside to the towns in a meaningful way.

“We need to get off our backsides, stop complaining and offer alternative messages. We are never going to get prime spots, but we could get some good coverage on a regular basis.

“The BBC is a friend and friends sometimes squabble, but friends also respect each other. They are ready to report in a fair way, but we need to reach out and make that relationship robust.”

Former One Man and his Dog presenter Robin Page accused the corporation of marginalising rural issues.

“I’ve been employed by the BBC. I’ve been sacked by the BBC. I hate the BBC and they hate me. The BBC hates the countryside and country people,” he said. “It’s outrageous that organisations like the Countryside Alliance aren’t heard about more.

“We want programmes by country people reflecting the countryside. When are we going to see a presenter that actually has some dirt on their boots?

“Instead we have people like Bill Oddie, vice chairman of the League Against Cruel Sports and ridiculous programmes like Springwatch and Countryfile.

“We shouldn’t be debating whether the BBC is a friend or foe – we should be talking about stopping paying our licence fee on a massive scale because it’s not worth it, the BBC doesn’t deserve it and it misuses it.”

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Representatives from the BBC were invited to attend the debate but nobody was available.