By Jon Snow,
25 April 2001, sec. 2, p. 5.
Is the great foot and mouth disaster rapidly becoming the first email democratising story of our time? Against the background of Maff's self-interested manipulation of figures – the collapse and truncation of its once coherent data posting on its website – the gulf in information from the "field" has been filled by direct communications from people affected by the consequences of the disease.
These are not the propagandist circulars from the Soil Association or other pressure groups, but person to person emails coming apparently at random from as far afield as Dumfriesshire and Cornwall. In my case, some have come via the Channel 4 News website, some have managed to work out a presenter or journalist's personal email, but all have developed in the course of the epidemic. They have inevitably played an increasing role in shaping our approach to covering this catastrophe.
Some of the emails are simple accounts of the spread of the disease to within first 20, then five, and then one mile of the writer's home. Then an account of the cull and the detail of the screw-ups that accompanied it. In numerous cases they have led to direct coverage on the screen. The sheer weight of these messages has outstripped any spinning Maff or anyone else could manage. So that "towny" hacks, alienated by the fox hunting debate and the Countryside Alliance have, through personal relationships developed across the net, found themselves sucked into an understanding of a rural disaster not seen in our lifetime.
Ministers and officials regularly express exasperation with the way in which the media is tackling foot and mouth. Where once the Press Association wire, the ministerial press release, the NFU statement steam-rollered all before them, today the semi-private inbox is countering hard. Anecdotal evidence arrives by the basketful to dissuade the town-bound hack from accepting much of what "officialdom" is putting out.
There's the hotel owner in Borrowdale; the pig breeder in Wiltshire; the aristocratic rare-breeds sheep owner in the Borders – each has brought something to the environment in which we decide how and what to cover in all this. Hence the government and the farming establishment have constantly found themselves on the back foot, driven both by events and the freewheeling flow of information in a way few of us have seen before. Certainly the BSE crisis never looked like this.
Many of these emailers lead to others. One introduced me to Edinburgh University's key animal health researcher; Dr Keith Sumption, whose work has now become our bible. It is he who has shown that of the last 22 outbreaks, those in which vaccination and culling were deployed together produced the final case just 42 days after the first outbreak.
I've also been led to the Reverend Rosie Radcliffe's vivid accounts of how the disaster has afflicted her Cumbrian parish – I didn't envy her wrestling with the issues in her Easter message.
It was via email that I was asked the very simple question about the complete absence of any residual government provision for tackling such an outbreak. "How is it," I was asked, "that we have been bombing the shit out of Saddam for more than a decade, and for why? Aren't we told that it's because he's got weapons of mass destruction including biological? And in the list that Geoff Hoon and the Tories before him wheeled out, aren't we told of anthrax and foot and mouth? Well how come, then, we've spent millions bombing him, but nothing on guarding against the consequences of the old bugger dropping a phial of F&M in, say, Devizes?"
Welcome to the new world of intelligent people power. Ministers, officials, you have trouble on your hands. You too know our email addresses!