Expert Eye

Tom Clarker

Bird flu has hardly been winging its way towards the UK.

It
popped up in Russia in August, took another month to reach Romania,
Turkey and a Greek island, and a couple of weeks more to reach Croatia.
Defra has teams looking for the disease in wild birds and imports of
poultry are restricted. No wonder we were gobsmacked when the UK’s
first case of the virus emerged, late on Sunday last week, in a dead
parrot in a shed in Essex – not (we are soon to learn) a Norweigan
Blue, but otherwise surreal enough for Monty Python. So how did the
press handle it?

Monday The Independent came out tops. No
pictures overnight of the Essex bird dealer, but somehow it managed to
find a picture of a parrot being tested for bird flu that was so
sinister-looking the producers of Waking the Dead would’ve been proud.
They added it to a poster front page, white on black, for
spine-chilling impact.

The Daily Mail’s shock is explicit in its
headline. It was swift to marry the unexpected appearance of the H5N1
strain of bird flu in Britain to the potential of an impending ‘flu
pandemic’. Perhaps it was the Mail Caroline Flint was thinking of when
the next day in the Commons she berated the media for misleading the
public over bird flu: “Some of the reports have confused people,” she
said. In my view she’s right – there’s a fantastically small risk of a
pandemic originating from birds in Europe, making bird flu and people
flu separate stories. To most editors, however, the link is enough to
make both stories one. It’s something we’ve managed to avoid on Channel
4 News.

Full credit to The Times for being the first to reveal
the unfortunate parrot’s identity – we were dying to know. It is (or
rather was) an Orange-Winged Amazon.

Inside The Times was an
interesting side-bar: the wild bird trade is second only to drug- and
gun-running in the EU. Bad news if the new EU ban on international
trade drives the pet bird business to yet more shadowy depths.

Tuesday
By now, reporters had spent a whole day outside the Essex bird dealer’s
business and dug furiously into his past. To the delight of the many
papers, it turned out he’d done time for VAT fraud and two red tops
claimed it as exclusive. But The Sun topped the pun stakes. Its
front-page headline proclaimed “BIRD BRAIN”, followed by “He’s done
bird” inside. Exotic birds on page five surrounded a story detailing
the quarantine facility and an aerial showing how the “dodgy” bird
dealer’s premises are just yards from the farm where foot-and-mouth
disease first emerged in 2001. An irrelevant coincidence, but
compelling in the circumstances.

The Daily Mail splashed a 1980
photo of “Mr Bird Flu” on its front page, and also pursued the story
about his allegedly dodgy past. Lured by a strong scent of postfoot-
and-mouth Defra incompetence, the Mail blamed the department for not
screening him before granting the quarantine licence. Though the
ongoing investigation may prove me wrong, this is kind of missing the
point.

Based on what we know, “Mr Bird Flu”, however dodgy,
followed Government guidelines to the letter, even storing his dead
birds in his freezer until vets arrived.

The Independent once
again hit the right tone. An astonishing Baghdad blast kept bird flu
off its front page, but inside contained the most detailed news and
analysis of the parrot and its origins in that day’s press. Its leader
is spot on too: flaws in preparedness are most likely to leave our
country at the greatest risk of bird flu. And it piles the blame on
Defra for releasing first the news of the dead parrot, then its
infection status, after papers are put to bed, at either side of a
weekend. This is a news management strategy which, if true, does not
bode well should bird flu, or a far more frightening pandemic, actually
take hold in the UK.

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