Saturday 25 March 2017

On Countryfile

As you'll doubtless already know, Countryfile found itself in the firing line for anti-Brexit bias at the start of the week following a report on last Sunday's edition

The Daily Express, which appears to be in hot pursuit of Countryfile at the moment, picked up on the outrage of some on Twitter and the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph duly followed suit. 

The Daily Express scuffed its attack rather by blaming the wrong presenter, Adam Henson, rather than the man responsible, Tom Heap. Bizarrely, though published several hours later, the Daily Mail did exactly the same thing! - leading me to guess that the Daily Mail writer pretty much copied the Daily Express's article without bothering to do much checking. (After many hours the Mail {online} edited the article to change the name, without printing any acknowledgement that it had done so!). At least the Telegraph got the right man from start. 

It all allowed Tom Heap to ignore the substance of the complaints and laugh it all off:

It made me smile because, as a Countryfile fan, I remember Adam and Tom appearing on a special (from some Countryfile event) and joking that people can't remember which one is which - though that's no excuse for lazy journalists of course. 

As for the substance of the complaints, there's no question that this was a heavily one-sided, negative piece of reporting from Tom Heap. The balance of voices was entirely one-sided and Tom's narrative was cut from the same cloth, reinforcing the negative points being made.

The added irony of that was that Matt Baker introduced the second report by hinting that there would be some balance ("But is it really as bad as some seem to think?") but it never materialised. The second report was as full of people who seem to think its "as bad as some seem to think" as the first report was. There wasn't a positive anywhere to be found. 

I can well understand then why pro-Brexit people poured onto Twitter to complain and anti-Brexit people poured onto Twitter to tell pro-Brexit people that they can't handle the truth. 

Of course, the BBC would say that this is a one-off and judge Countryfile's Brexit coverage over time, but if a report's so biased in its own right, surely that overrules the 'one off' argument?

That said, Tom Heap last got into trouble for anti-Brexit bias with the Express and some people on Twitter for his report from Spain on the 5 March edition, but, to be wholly fair to him, he barely touched on Brexit (though he mentioned climate change a few times) and focused more on possible positive developments for farming courtesy of UK science, so not every complaint against him holds water:
No matter how innovative we are, extending the UK growing season of iceberg lettuces through the winter is never going to be economically viable. There's just not enough sunlight. So if we want them on our shelves in December and January, we're going to have to continue driving them across Europe to get here and that's not helping in our battle with climate change. And then there's Brexit. We don't yet know the future trade deal, but import tariffs are a possibility, so if we can't rely on produce from Europe, could science help us out?
Anyhow, here's a transcript of last week's edition. Please judge if my complaint about it holds water:


MATT BAKER: Now, agriculture is an industry that relies on migrant workers but with Brexit on the horizon, there are worries that we could be facing a severe labour shortage. Here's Tom. 
TOM HEAP: Growing, harvesting and processing our food is a big job. And even at this time of year, there is plenty to do. A small army are preparing for the summer strawberry harvest. The fruit may be quintessentially British, but most of the workers are not home-grown. And on farms across the UK, the changing seasons will bring thousands more European workers. 
ANTHONY SNELL: Well, we're a sort of medium-sized soft fruit business. We grow about 1,000 tonnes of strawberries and about 300 tonnes of raspberries. At this time of the year, we have about 50 to 60 workers and they start arriving here in early February and then once we start picking, in early May, we'll boost up the workforce up to 300 and then it gradually reduces during the autumn time. 
TOM HEAP: Herefordshire soft fruit grower Anthony Snell says it's a British success story, which could be derailed if migration restrictions are introduced. 
ANTHONY SNELL: This isn't anything to do with migration or immigration - this is just seasonal workers coming over here, working hard, benefiting our economy and then going home. TOM HEAP: Put simply, would this farm, on anything like this scale, exist if you didn't have these workers? ANTHONY SNELL: No, there's absolutely no doubt we'd be in serious trouble if we didn't have our seasonal workers coming here. We would be out of business. It would be absolutely catastrophic to our industry. TOM HEAPCould we not go back to the way it used to be, when students and others used to work seasonally, you know, summer jobs in the fields? ANTHONY SNELL: No - the horticulture industry is a very specialised industry. We can't just have people just turning up and picking. You know, we have to train our workforce, these are skilled seasonal workers and there just isn't the British people who want to do this work, although we'd love to employ all British people. 
TOM HEAPHis concerns about recruitment are backed up by a recent National Farmers' Union survey. It showed that this time last year, before the Brexit vote, about a quarter of farmers had problems filling seasonal vacancies. But by September, the ready supply of workers was drying up and all growers had recruitment problems. High numbers of overseas workers are present across farming and not just picking and harvesting. Highly qualified jobs like vets are affected too. At this Cotswold dairy farm, two vets are being trained to carry out TB tests - a vital part of modern cattle farming. The trainees are Cristina from Spain and Olivio from Romania. Their tutor, Ana, is Spanish too. 
ANA CANGA: We have vets coming from Portugal, vets coming from Greece, vets coming from Czech Republic... 
TOM HEAP: In fact, nearly a third of all vets in the UK were trained overseas. And in public health work, like food safety and abattoir inspections, almost all the vets are from outside the UK. 
TOM HEAP: So, is it simply the case that vets from Europe are filling the jobs that British vets don't want to do? ANA CANGA: Exactly, that is what happens. The British vets don't want to work in those fields. TOM HEAP: And for you personally, Ana, you've spent 17 years here, what do you feel about it? Do you feel worried? ANA CANGA: I am, yes, because I have a partner here with me and we are looking for a home to buy. And at the moment, we don't know if we can afford to have a mortgage for 20 years because we don't know if I can stay in this country for that long.
TOM HEAPOthers we spoke to say the fall in the pound since the Brexit vote has put some people off coming to Britain. The poor exchange rate means the most skilled pickers will earn around 75 euros less each week than a year ago. According to the National Farmers' Union, the migrant worker situation is a crisis in waiting, so what's being done? Well, that's what I'll be finding out later. 


MATT BAKER: Agriculture in the UK employs large numbers of overseas workers and with Brexit on the horizon, there are warnings of a severe labour shortage. But is it really as bad as some seem to think? Here's Tom. 
TOM HEAP: Every year, the UK horticulture industry employs around 75,000 seasonal workers, half of them coming from abroad. We're so reliant on workers from overseas to pick and process our produce that it's claimed that, without them, the horticulture business could collapse. And it's not just seasonal workers - farming employs plenty of foreign people who live here all year round, including many of our vets. The concern is that Brexit could mean restrictions on the number of foreign workers coming into the UK, so what can be done? Well, the minister responsible for farming, Andrea Leadsom, recently told farmers that technology has the answers. And for some labour-intensive fruit and veg jobs, we've already made great strides, from GPS-controlled tractors to robot weeders. But could machines replace thousands of seasonal workers? Earlier I met Herefordshire soft fruit grower Anthony Snell. This production line is processing frozen blackcurrants and, like his pickers, most of the workers are from across the European Union. 
TOM HEAP: What's going on here? ANTHONY SNELL: What we're doing now is sorting all the organic blackcurrants and they're going through their final process. TOM HEAP: They're picking out the duff ones? ANTHONY SNELL: They're picking out all the bad ones. The whole horticultural industry is spending a lot of time looking at mechanisation and robotics and everything but there's only a certain amount we can do. You saw us processing organic blackcurrants through a stringing processing line. TOM HEAP: "Stringing", that's a good word. Is that the machine that was shaking them all? ANTHONY SNELL: That's right. It's rapidly vibrating the frozen berries and knocking off the little bits of stalks and everything, clean and ready for your yoghurt. TOM HEAPYeah. Is there any more you could do in this packing side? ANTHONY SNELL: Well, there is, we're looking all the time because we are worried, we arre very worried about the future with the availability of labour. But basically, for the main tasks in horticulture, for picking and in strawberry crops, we need seasonal workers to pick our crops and we can't just replace them all with robots because it's a very specialised job. It would be a pretty clever robot to really replicate all the skills that our staff have. 
TOM HEAPSo what is the solution for the fruit and veg industry? I've come to Barfoots in West Sussex, a huge UK-based international vegetable grower. Three-quarters of their workers are from overseas. 
TOM HEAP: OK, Ewa, what are we doing here? EWA: I need 24 strings to have for one plant, yeah? TOM HEAPThese are the strings for the chillies to grow up. EWA: Yes, it's for the chillies to grow up and I put the thing in the up... 
TOM HEAPEwa is from Poland. She's been here six years.
TOM HEAPYou're very quick. Can I have a go? EWA: Yes. Yes.TOM HEAP: Once round... Oops. EWA: Yes. Then where next? TOM HEAPSecond time... I'm getting the hang of this. EWA: Yes. Very good. TOM HEAPIt'll be done by Christmas if I carry on like that. TOM HEAPGiven the choice, she'd like to stay. EWA: It's a nice job and no stress. TOM HEAPGood money? EWA: Yes, for me, it's better money than I was in Poland. Yes, yes. TOM HEAPAre you worried about anything in the future? EWA: Sometimes I worry about Brexit, yes, because I stay here. TOM HEAPYou want to stay here? EWA: Yes, yes, yes. 
TOM HEAPThere is hope for permanent workers like Ewa, but at the moment, their future here still remains uncertain. There's also a sense that the penny is starting to drop in government regarding seasonal workers too. Brexit Minister David Davis recently said Don't expect the door will suddenly shut. It won't." And the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said just last week "We will need European workers to come and work here for many years to come". Ewa's boss is Barfoot's MD Julian Marks. He says growers and all their workers need a solution and they need it soon.
TOM HEAPHow worried is the whole horticulture industry about labour? JULIAN MARKS: I think the industry is worried in the short term - for 2017 and in general, there is some uncertainty as to whether we'll be able to source enough people to meet the requirements for the 2017 harvest. TOM HEAPReally? Even for this year, there's already a worry? JULIAN MARKS: Even for this year, we're seeing the number of applications from individuals falling, and falling rapidly, as they make choices about where they go to work. 
TOM HEAPThe industry is suggesting its own solution - a new visa system to allow seasonal workers to come to the UK in a controlled way. But again, it's needed quickly. 
JULIAN MARKS: A seasonal permit system is absolutely critical. We need, in 2017, a trial of the scheme which could be applied in 2018. That would then, at least, create certainty for returners and for individuals coming in 2019. TOM HEAPDo you think government get the urgency? JULIAN MARKSI think they're constantly battling the political requirements of immigration and the issues surrounding that and often, perhaps, the economic importance falls away. TOM HEAPIt sounds like they don't get it. You're being too polite to say so. JULIAN MARKSAm I being too polite? Well, they need to get on and do something in 2017. 2018 will be too late. 
TOM HEAPDespite Julian's concerns, the government this week said there will be no workers' scheme in 2017 as employers still have access to EU labour, though it will keep the situation under review. But as for when we leave the European Union, the future still remains uncertain. 

1 comment:

  1. "The poor exchange rate means the most skilled pickers will earn around 75 euros less each week than a year ago."

    I'm calling bulls..., er, balderdash on that one.

    The pound was trading between 1.26 and 1.29 against the Euro in March 2016, let's be generous and call it 1.28. It's now trading at around 1.16, less than a 10% drop.

    To be earning 75 Euros less this year than last year, the pickers would need to be earning in excess of £800/week.

    I think they might find a few more willing British workers if these farms were really paying that sort of wage.

    More fake news from the BBC methinks.


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