Four editors of West Country newspapers and the controller of current affairs at Carlton West Country TV have signed an open letter to the Prime Minister demanding the immediate restoration of suspended Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food press conferences during the General Election campaign.
In an area of the country still suffering badly from foot and mouth disease, the editors want the right – blocked last week – to ask questions on behalf of the people caught up in the crisis.
"There is a very strong suspicion that they are using this to push foot and mouth under the carpet until the election is over," said Barrie Williams, editor of the Western Morning News.
The letter – signed by Williams, Alan Qualtrough of the Evening Herald, Plymouth, Steve Hall of the Exeter Express & Echo, Brendan Hanrahan of the Torquay Herald Express and Brad Higgins of Carlton West Country – was published in the Morning News last Friday.
The previous Wednesday, MAFF had suspended all press conferences and further statements on foot and mouth policy issues, quoting Cabinet Office guidance which said civil servants could not make policy statements that might show a political party to an unfair advantage during the election campaign.
"It is absolutely outrageous," Williams told Press Gazette. "The Cabinet guidance was never meant to cover emergency situations like this. Most of the publicity is criticising what the Government is doing anyway.
"In Devon in particular, foot and mouth is still a huge issue despite what Mr Blair would have the rest of the electorate believe.
"Culling is still proceeding; there is still a big animal welfare issue; there is a huge issue revolving around a giant burial site being constructed at Ash Moor, the size of 15 football pitches, and we can no longer ask any questions about it."
Williams has given Jason Groves, WMN’s parliamentary correspondent, the task of showing the open letter to the Prime Minister.
"This is an outrage, restricting the freedom of the press and the public’s right to know," stormed Williams. "Hiding under a very flimsy excuse of this sort of election purdah simply won’t do."
The daily press conferences had allowed the media to put the fears and concerns of the public to MAFF’s top people and then to print and broadcast the answers. "That was the only effective way the farmers and the community could keep abreast of these policies," said Williams.
MAFF’s deputy director of communications, Lucian Hudson, has written to Williams to say the paper’s outrage was misplaced.
"There is no cover-up and no black-out," said Hudson. "We are anxious to ensure that throughout the election period we continue to provide as much factual information as we reasonably can."
But he warned that MAFF could not comment on existing Government policy under the Cabinet guidelines.
By Jean Morgan