Crying chicken some journalists are right to scare people

Adrian Monck

NO ONE LOVES a good scare story more than me. As a professional journalist I’ve cried wolf longer and louder than a fairytale pig. But now I’m on the other side of the news, and the bird flu story is starting to huff and puff its way into my home. In fact, the story is being dragged through the dogflap by my cocker spaniel in the form of dismembered chicken carcasses.

I live at the end of a track and to travel anywhere I have to pass through field and farmyard. Ordinarily this is a rural idyll, but now it means running the gauntlet of rogue avians.

Back when foot-and-mouth threatened, I had 20 sheep in the garden and a paddling pool full of mud was placed at the top of the track and labelled ‘disinfectant’. Then only the sheep were predicted to suffer, and the mucky pool seemed faintly ridiculous even to the farmer whose livelihood hung in the balance.

Now bird flu is on the wing, let me share with you the rural reality of life among livestock. My neighbours keep hens, a dozen or so. The farmer at the top keeps several hundred.

By day they roam in what looks like Guantanamo Bay for hens, but is apparently chicken Disneyland. Opposite the chickens there’s a smallholding with geese and ducks.

For anyone with a passing interest in bird flu, or H5N1 as it’s known at home, the various explanatory diagrams on newspaper pages and websites look very reassuring. Plans have been made. TV pictures show people in white boiler suits and masks stretching on their disposable gloves to seal off hen houses, there’s a flutter of feathers, but it’s all under control. On the radio, ministers are adept at answering questions on how they’ve informed the industry, have a national registration scheme and are otherwise totally on top of the impending panic.

There is a problem, however. Nobody has told the chickens. Even when the chicken farmer has all his layers under lock and key, one or two will always be found milling around with the pigs or the sheep. On a 100-acre field it’s hard to round up every single one of them. Harder too to stop foxes treating them as convenience food. These chickens really are living Catch 22 — if they are smart enough to escape, they are dumb enough to get eaten.

If the foxes wore gloves and masks this might not be such a problem. But the foxes are messy eaters. They will rip the chickens to bits anywhere, but at least once a week our garden is the destination of choice. Not being concerned with CSI-style detection, they tend to leave bits of their victims behind them. These crime scenes are forensically investigated by our small children, who scrutinise the feathers. The remains appeal to our dog, who rather than analysing them, eats them. Or brings them into the kitchen.

But not to cook. I live cheek by dismembered jowl alongside the mortal remains of our egg-laying chums.

The truth is when you hear Government announcements and your only contact with chickens is plucking a frozen carcass off a supermarket aisle, they sound resolute and reassuring, almost like they’ve got it all under control. When you hear scientists, officials and politicians warning journalists not to cry wolf and scare the living daylights out of people you might even think that they have a point.

But when feathers litter the lawn and nature actually beats a path through your back door — that’s when you’re grateful someone is trying to scare the hell out of us!

KEVIN MARSH will make a formidable double act with Vin Ray in the BBC’s journalism college. He’s taken a keen interest in the way journalists are prepared for the business, but he’ll be a tough act to follow on the Today programme.

One person who would make an outstanding leader for Britain’s favourite non-Wogan morning listen is Channel 4 News deputy Martin Fewell. When he dropped out of the race for the BBC ‘Ten’ (which went to the excellent Craig Oliver) the word was that something more appropriate might be coming up. The Today job looks very appropriate indeed.

Possessed of a brain sharp enough to shave with and entirely lacking in small talk, Fewell is editorially supersavvy.

He’s also a technology innovator and has helped ensure that ITN will almost certainly keep the contract to produce Channel 4’s news. Even this column’s seal of approval might not be enough to prevent him getting the job.

AND FINALLY, one of the advantages of living in the Kent countryside is that when not stockpiling Tamiflu or planning armed robberies I get to watch BBC South East. Next Monday night (13 March) its news will be given over to citizen journalism. The BBC is rounding up some of the few remaining locals who haven’t been arrested in connection with the Securitas heist to staff its Tunbridge Wells studios.

Before I could utter the words ‘charter review stunt’ my daughter introduced me to one of her teachers who’ll be doing graphics. Even my cask-strength scepticism has been diluted by witnessing the sheer excitement the project has generated. Making these kinds of connections is exactly the kind of thing the BBC ought to be doing, and if they’re serious then they’ll still be doing it when charter review is a distant memory. One man who could help make that happen is South East Today’s editor on Monday night, director general Mark Thompson. And he could always raise a view bob selling tickets for the gallery…

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