The Western Morning News was given an exclusive, two-hour interview with top foot and mouth experts and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food backed down on its decision to cancel press conferences in the area after the paper campaigned against an information shutdown.
Press Gazette reported MAFF’s cancellation of daily press conferences, which it said was to concur with Government policy guidance during a General Election, and the Western Morning News’s reaction – an open letter to the Prime Minister complaining of a foot and mouth cover-up.
Editor Barrie Williams was last week contacted by the Central Office of Information and told that he and chief reporter Andrea Kuhm could meet MAFF top brass and put any questions they liked.
They met the director of F&M operations in the West Country, the top veterinary manager, the F&M centre manager and the officer heading the military operation and asked "some very searching questions", said Williams.
The paper has run a series of articles since with an almost verbatim question and answer report.
"We put all manner of what would previously have been described as ‘political questions’ and had a very full exchange," Williams added.
Press briefings will now be held weekly from this week. Williams said: "It is a breakthrough and much better than none at all. I don’t have any doubt that this ban on press briefings was brought in because they want to keep foot and mouth out of the headlines."
Williams said he was "totally convinced" the U-turn came because of the Press Gazette story highlighting the issue. "The timing was too close to be co-incidental. We were getting nowhere – we had been bashing our heads away on this one for a couple of weeks. We hadn’t even had a reply to our open letter to Blair. Press Gazette comes out on Friday and then on Monday we get a call saying we can ask them any questions we like."
A MAFF spokesman in Devon said that the Wednesday briefings had been instituted "because everybody kept asking for them" but that they would be purely for information and not policy