The media obsession with an infected alpaca represents the worst of Britain
There are few headlines that so perfectly sum up what is worst about British politics and the media than this, from yesterday’s Mail on Sunday: ‘I beg you, Carrie, woman to woman… help save Geronimo’ – the alpaca set to be put down, in line with the law, after testing positive for bovine TB (bTB).
It captures it all: the media’s gleeful facilitation of this absurd circus; the perception that the Prime Minister is at the beck and call of others; even the mere fact that the Government has to have a view on this story at all.
It doesn’t stop there. The Sun breathlessly reports that Geronimo’s owner will “take a bullet for him” while denouncing the “jobsworths” implementing the United Kingdom’s disease control procedures.
Even the Times, where one might expect more sober reportage, felt it appropriate to inform its readers that the alpaca has “a cheeky personality” while amplifying its owner’s threat to film the culling. Even the typically serious-minded Matthew Parris promised to “never to be horrid about our prime minister again, if only he can save poor Geronimo.”
On one level, this could be taken as a sign that nature is healing. After years in which the news agenda has been dominated by major crises such as Brexit and the pandemic, we’re back to having a silly season in August. But even taking that into account, this is pretty abject stuff.
It’s been left to George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, to point out that there is a good reason that Britain has such a rigorous regime: bTB kills 500 cattle every week. The tests that discovered the diseases are also much more accurate than those used in New Zealand, upon which the owner wishes to rely instead.
Taking a soft stance on infected animals — even cute infected animals — has serious consequences. It means more livestock killed by disease on the long run, and all the attendant emotional distress and financial difficulty for farmers. It makes it harder to export British meat overseas, undermining the agricultural sector and our national prosperity.
‘Save Geronimo’ is a stance to warm the hearts of city-dwellers and hard-line animal rights activists such as Chris Packham, who in 2019 helped push through a ban on bird shooting that rendered farmers unable to control pests and protect lambs and other livestock. Eventually Michael Gove, Eustice’s predecessor, had to intervene and overturn it personally.
From Joanna Lumley downwards, the pro-alpaca coalition is distinguished by its remoteness from the practical realities of farming.
Mawkish sentimentality and a refusal to accept the need for difficult trade-offs is a big reason this country gets little done and less built. If the Government can’t bring itself to enforce our perfectly sensible disease-control policies, we can scarcely expect it to face down this same caucus when it returns to demand the scrapping of planning reforms or airport expansions.
In all these cases, the countryside is less a practical and sometimes brutal place than a twee totem, invoked as a bucolic ward against tough decisions and necessary change. There’s no denying bTB is a scourge that needs fighting — but the petting zoo/media complex is what truly ails British farming.