A cry for freedom or cunning vermin in smelly wellies?

Press coverage of the Countryside Alliance march in London reflected the town versus country divide.

While The Daily Telegraph could hardly contain itself on Monday morning with the splash "407,791 voices cry freedom", the Daily Mirror was a little less reverent.

"Vermin, cunning vermin" was the headline over Brian Reade’s report. With many references to "hooray Henrys" and the "Tweed Set," Reade said the event had been hijacked by the pro-hunting lobby.

While the diversity of the marchers was noted approvingly by many pro-commentators, for critics of the Countryside Alliance the marchers only seemed to confirm their prejudices about country people.

The Sun’s headline splash was "The Wonder Of Wellies", which seemed to confirm a particular image of country folk, although its coverage inside was largely sympathetic to the motives of the marchers.

The Guardian’s front-page commentary piece centred on descriptions of countryfolk queueing up for their cafŽ lattes at Starbucks, a seemingly contradictory melding of town and country. It was the sort of coverage that angered one marcher, Charles Garside, former editor of the European and now a hotelier in Cumbria.

"Do they really think there are no Starbucks outside the M25 corridor?" said Garside.

In the Evening Standard, columnist Victoria Coren turned her attention to the march, arguing against it on the basis that tweed makes your bottom look big.  It was the sort of flip, cosmopolitan attitude to the issue that angered many country people, said Garside.

If there was a central issue to the march aside from foxhunting, it was anger at the Government’s perceived ignorance and dismissal of the views of the countryside.

Garside said the media was in danger of alienating its readers in the same way. "A lot of the reporting was seen as capital-minded, almost elitist, and that the rest of the country does not matter. They do so at their own peril."

The Daily Mail has become synonymous with Middle England and had been promoting the event for weeks in advance. It devoted a full 15 pages to coverage on Monday morning.

The Mail and the Telegraph were in one voice: this was nothing less than the biggest, most important civil liberties protest in British history.

But for many of their rivals, it was a muddle of issues where real concerns about rural poverty and the death of communities were mixed with top-of-the-range Land Rovers, lucrative set-aside grants and double-barrelled lairds in plus fours.

In the Telegraph, New York writer Julia Maynett observed an England she had previously only read about in Jane Austen and Trollope novels.

She might have imagined she was providing a particularly American perspective, but it was one that many of her London counterparts seemed to share.


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