Journalists have been issued with new guidelines by the Government News Network on how to report the foot and mouth outbreak after two journalists were arrested for breaching a cordon around a protected zone.
Freelance photographers, Philip Hollis and James Purkiss, were charged under the Animal Health Act 1981, which was introduced to help stop the spread of disease.
The pair, who had their clothes and equipment taken from them and disinfected, were released on bail after appearing at South West Surrey Magistrates’ Court in Guildford last Friday.
The guidelines were issued by the Cabinet Office through the Media Emergency Forum. The Press Complaints Commission reminded editors to ensure that journalists liaise with press officers and do not enter protected zones.
As well as the arrests, complaints were made that helicopters from Sky and the BBC flew too close to the cattle, and that this could have increased the chance of the disease spreading via the air.
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: ‘A number of journalists are doing whatever they can to get some coverage, and that has meant crossing areas where they were disturbing the cows that people were trying to catch to cull.
‘Foot and mouth is a very infectious disease, and levels of bio-security are absolutely paramount.
‘Generally, there will be places where the press officers are and where the cordons have been established where the media should gather, so the press officers can get the information to them. There will obviously be a lot of media there, and they will want to cover all aspects of the story.
‘The crucial thing is that they don’t become the story themselves.”
Head of newsgathering at the BBC, Fran Unsworth, said on her BBC blog: ‘We were careful to take advice about the potential effects of using a helicopter, and whether its rotor blades could contribute to airborne transmission. That advice was that air is only disturbed at most by three times the length of the rotors. And at no time did our aircraft go below 366 metres.
‘It was put to us that we were hampering by frightening the cattle, and potentially spreading the disease. We were happy to comply.”
When asked about the timing of imposing an air exclusion zone, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: ‘At the end of any animal disease outbreak there will always be a lessons learned. We are still in the midst of the outbreak, and it would be premature to discuss any specific details.”
Editor of IPC-owned weekly Country Life, Mark Hedges, said ‘I think that, after the 2001 outbreak, you could not be unaware of how easily it is transferred. While I fully appreciate that journalists have a job to do, no job should be done irresponsibly.
‘The thought that journalists could put farmers’ livelihoods and even the country’s livelihood at risk by behaving irresponsibly is mind-blowing.
‘This is an absolute dreaded disease for the countryside, and just because some journalists don’t understand about the countryside, it’s a bit like saying: ‘I didn’t know that was the law’. It’s just something they should be prepared for.
‘Journalists are always told to get some background on whatever they’re doing.”