Tuesday 24 May 2011

Use and abuse of badgers

Like statistics, cute-looking animals are a gift to anyone with a political axe to grind.

You can use them to prove any point you like - they won't answer back, or worse still go running to the papers complaining about being used to score political points (always a risk if a politician invokes nurses, or single mothers, or etc, to support an argument).

I've often thought it would be fascinating to study the way the foxhunting debate polarised into a Left vs Right argument, with the welfare of the fox trampled underfoot in the rush to trade insults about privileged toffs and unwashed lentil-munchers.

Sadly I don't have the time, or the government funding, to do that sort of research myself. But... today I discovered that there's a scientist doing exactly that, only with the badger/bTB 'debate'.

I have my elder daughter Emma to thank for the tip-off. As part of her veterinary studies, she attended a lecture by Dr Angela Cassidy, from the University of East Anglia, on the media coverage of the Badger 'controversy' in the UK press.

You can download a pdf of one of Dr Cassidy's earlier talks here (This link may show the document in preview form, if I've got it right). It makes fascinating reading.

She appears to find that the badger issue polarises people into rural vs. urban, left-wing vs. right-wing. Discussion tends to focus on culling rather than disease and its control. There is strong evidence of lobbying creating coverage in the media at key moments, such as in the lead-up to the General Election. And new scientific evidence tends to cause arguments about the science itself - the protagonists entrench their positions and argue about the validity of the science, rather than taking the opportunity to reconsider the best course of action.

There's also an interesting section on the use of imagery by different groups - cute n cuddly badgers by one side, vicious snarly badgers by the other. And she looks at the presentation of the badger as 'good' and 'bad' by groups with different perspectives over the years, going back through Tommy Brock and his ilk to the days long before badgers were associated with disease.

It's hard not to find yourself drawn in, even reading Dr Cassidy's work, and ask yourself "Is she pro or anti?" That's kind of beside the point. Her work is a valuable insight into the way something that should be a straightforward, practical debate gets hijacked, and becomes the focus for a much deeper disagreement between groups with opposing agendas; and the media tricks both sides resort to in their attempt to win the day... while the cattle, the farmers, and the badgers, continue to suffer.

This isn't the first time animals have been used this way, and it certainly won't be the last. We would do well to understand the phenomenon.

1 comment:

vicky said...

Great piece James.