I started working for the Countryside Alliance 18 years ago as a press officer, a role I was proud to fill and a job I loved. Despite several changes of job title, I remain a press officer at heart which is why I was particularly disappointed by a storm in The Times on Wednesday headlined "Gamekeepers have felt 'under pressure' to kill illegally". The disappointment was two-fold. Firstly, because it was a dreadful piece of journalism in a paper which I hold in high regard and have worked with for years. Secondly, because it is quite obvious how it had come about.
On Monday on a new scientific paper 'Understanding diverse approaches to predator management amongst gamekeepers in England' by a team from Exeter University and published in the journal People and Nature, was publicised across social media. It is an interesting study based on interviews with 20 keepers across South England looking at their motivation for predator control. The research was focussed on legal predator control and whilst it touched on illegal raptor persecution, the interviewees were disapproving of such illegal activities and resistant to any pressure to carry them out, as the report's authors confirmed yesterday in a letter to The Times.
How then did a journalist come to write a story claiming that the research found that keepers were under pressure to kill illegally which then descended into an utterly confused conflation of legal pest control and illegal killing? The answer is fairly clear that the journalist involved, The Times' 'Countryside Correspondent' did not react to a press release about the research - or to actually reading it - but to an obscure animal rights organisation called Moorland Monitors which is referenced in the article. That group would have culled quotes, completely out of context, from the report and sent them to a Times journalist. He did not read the research, which would have informed him that the 20 keepers interviewed were from Southern England, but instead contacted a spokesman in the Scottish RSPB who he knew would supply a generic quote about illegal raptor killing which would give his story credibility. He also contacted our colleagues at the National Gamekeepers Organisation and asked them to respond to allegations made in a scientific paper, which were never actually made.
What he did not do was to contact the authors of the report - the people who actually carried out the interviews and wrote them up - presumably because he did not want them to contradict the story he wanted to write. Those authors did immediately contradict his story when it was published. Professor Robbie McDonald responded to The Times story with a very clear rebuke: "This is not what our research found. Our focus was on legal predator management. We found that keepers were not particularly motivated by employer pressures but had diverse motivations, including a sense of custodianship for game and non-game wildlife."
The Alliance has made an official complaint to The Times which will defend its journalist because it feels it has to. In reality, however, we both know what happened and that in a paper like The Times, it should not have done.