Their campaign against the RSPB is a shameful example of ‘astroturfing’. The public should beware
|‘Grouse are cosseted at the expense of other life forms. Predators must be eliminated.’ Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA|
This is how, in a democracy, you win when you are outnumbered: you purchase the results. It’s how politics now works. The very rich throw money at the parties, lobby groups and thinktanks that project their demands. If they are clever, they keep their names out of it.
Here’s an example: a campaign fronted by the former England cricket captain Sir Ian Botham, called You Forgot the Birds. It appears to have two purposes: to bring down the RSPB – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – and to get the natural history presenter Chris Packham sacked from the BBC.
It likes to present itself as “... a network of people who are passionate about bird habitat. Some of us are conservationists or self-confessed birders, some are farmers and landowners, some work full-time in the countryside while others are volunteers from the cities.” And this is what it revealed in a footnote at the bottom of one of its press releases, that has since vanished from the web: “The You Forgot the Birds campaign is funded by the British grouse industry.” Ah, the grouse industry. Who would have guessed?
To shoot grouse you have to be exceedingly rich: it costs around £7,000 per person per day. The owners of grouse moors, who are also exceedingly rich, justify these fees by ensuring that there are vast numbers of birds to shoot. This requires, across great tracts of our uplands, the elimination of almost everything else.
Grouse are wild birds, but cosseted at the expense of other life forms. Predators and competitors must be eliminated, either legally or, in the case of protected species such as peregrine falcons, golden eagles, red kites and hen harriers, illegally. Many grouse moors are black holes for birds of prey. They disappear and their satellite tags stop working in the same places, again and again. Alien abduction? Russian black ops? No: shooting, trapping and poisoning by the gamekeepers employed to maximise grouse numbers, most of whom, on these remote moors, get away with it.
Producing as many grouse as possible also means burning and draining the land, to create a monoculture of the young heather the birds eat. Sure, this releases the carbon in the soil, pollutes rivers and helps to flood the towns downstream. But to hell with the plebs. To rub our noses in it properly, we pay them for the privilege: grouse moors are subsidised by us. At the height of his austerity programme, as essential public services were cut to the bone, David Cameron’s government raised the subsidy for grouse moors by 84%, to £56 per hectare. Some owners now harvest hundreds of thousands of pounds of our money every year.
Cameron also tried to close the national wildlife crime unit, which would have pleased his friends no end. It was saved only by a public outcry. Conservationists have called for a law of vicarious liability, making the owners of grouse moors responsible for the wildlife crime they commission, rather than leaving only the gamekeepers to take the rap. But this proposal was struck down by Cameron’s environment minister, Richard Benyon. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that he owns a grouse moor.
But through the efforts of wildlife campaigners (like Packham and the RSPB) and people whose homes have been flooded downstream, the grouse industry is now being called to account. Last week, the petition posted by the conservationist Mark Avery calling for an end to driven grouse shooting – where wild birds are sent towards the guns by “beaters” – passed the 100,000-signature threshold: the issue is now likely to be debated in parliament.
The result is You Forgot the Birds, championed by the Daily Mail, which describes it as “a grassroots campaign by farmers and conservationists”. It is, of course, coincidental that Paul Dacre, the Mail’s editor, owns a grouse moor.
We know who’s in front of this “grassroots campaign”: Botham, who runs a shoot in North Yorkshire. But who’s behind it? Only one funder has so far been identified: the billionaire hedge fund owner Crispin Odey. We also know that the campaign is run by a lobbying company called Abzed. It boasts that “a besieged grouse moor community turned to Abzed. Our approach was to turn the spotlight on to the RSPB.” Very grassroots, I’m sure.
Claims made by the campaign keep falling apart. Last year the Telegraph had to issue a humiliating correction and apology to the RSPB after it repeated statements in a You Forgot the Birds press release that seem to have been conjured out of thin air. Last week, in the Mail and on the Today programme, Botham recited figures for the rare birds found on grouse moors during a survey by the British Trust for Ornithology. The BTO says it has conducted no such survey.
The purpose of the countryside, for people like Botham, Odey and Dacre, is an exclusive playground for the rich. For them, authentic country people are those who own or rent significant tracts of land, many of whom live in cities, and those who work for them, as long as they wear tweed instead of Gore-Tex. As for the RSPB and its members, they’re bipedal vermin. Never mind that many of them live and work in the countryside; they are interlopers with no right to a voice in rural life.
The media collaborates. News reporters describe shooting and hunting lobbyists as “countryside groups”, anointing them as the authentic rural voice and casting those who oppose them – who often seem to possess a far greater love for and knowledge of the countryside – as interfering townies. Documentary-makers seek a stereotyped rusticity which, though politically charged, is presented as the neutral and immutable spirit of rural life. The co-presenter of the series Clarissa and the Countryman was Sir Johnny Scott, a baronet who owns 5,000 acres in the Scottish borders: that’s what the BBC means by countryman. Where is he now? Ah yes, fronting up You Forgot the Birds with Botham.
When opposition is seen as illegitimate, it appears to be legitimate to cheat and bludgeon. That’s how the lords of the land have long maintained their pre-eminence. Today you can no longer call out the yeomanry, sit in judgment then have dissenters hanged. But there are other means of bypassing democracy. You buy yourself a crowd, or at least an outfit that looks like a crowd. You demand, from your position of comfortable anonymity, the silencing of people who contest your claims, like Packham. You use a corrupt and partisan media to hound them.
This is how politics works these days: astroturf groups (fake grassroots movements) and undisclosed interests are everywhere. The same forces are at play in the tobacco industry, fossil fuels, junk food, banking, guns, private health provision, in fact throughout public life. They recruit celebrities to front their campaigns. The astroturf groups confuse and obfuscate, make up stories and grant their anonymous backers plausible deniability.
They are a threat to democracy. Call them out, expose them to the light, and don’t believe a word they say.