Archive for May, 2010

Lifting the lid on flipping great beef

So it turns out that if this journalism malarkey all goes wrong, I can’t make good on my claim that I’d go and work in McDonald’s.

I visited the Weymouth branch of the fast-food chain today as part of a trip organised by McDonald’s to showcase its British food credentials and its links with the London 2012 Olympics.

Having visited a beef farm checking out the meat that goes into burgers, we trundled off to the restaurant, donned our caps and aprons and made some burgers. Here’s the lovely Richard Phelps from Blade Farming in action (luckily I escaped the photographer so there’s no evidence of me in a hairnet):

Richard Phelps
It turns out I’m a terrible Big Mac-maker. You have about 45 seconds to make the things (that includes toasting and dressing the bread and cooking the burger) and I was woeful. The incredibly patient chap overseeing the operation could barely disguise his dismay when I over-onioned the roll (“It’s just meant to be a pinch”) and was wayward with my gherkin (“Only two pieces and they’re meant to touch, so you get a piece in every bite”).

My ineptitude aside, it was interesting to see the food chain from beginning to end. McDonald’s is planning to do lots of trips like this to improve public understanding of food and appreciation of farming. See it as a cynical PR stunt or not, but I reckon it’s good of the company to give it a go.

Hmmm... Beef

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Being Wurzelised

I have to admit, I was a little sad this week when U2 had to pull out of Glastonbury cos Bono’s back’s giving him gyp. Like Jet, Bono, Th’Edge and the gang are a guilty musical pleasure of mine, and I was disappointed I wouldn’t get to see them again.

After today though, I’ve discovered a way to completely fill that gaping hole in the festival line-up left by Ireland’s second-favourite sons (Westlife being first, obviously). Just look who I’ve spent the day with:

Wurzels

That’s right, only the bloomin’ Wurzels. I’m a fully-fledged groupie now – I figure now I’ve seen Tommy Banner in a vest and been invited to go backstage at their Glasto show I can call myself that, anyway.

I won’t spoil what they said because the full interview’s going in Farmers Weekly in a few weeks – there’s a cracking video of them for the website too – but they were such nice chaps (I’m assuming the moment where Pete seemed to compare me to a bovine was an accidental blip…).

They’ve got another album of covers coming out next month to tie in with their festival appearance – my head DJ hasn’t stopped playing their version of Kaiser Chief’s ‘Ruby’ out of my head since I heard it.

I think it’s only right that I take Mr Business, Mr Arable and Miss Machinery to their festival set so they can get it stuck in their heads too. I’m kind like that.

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Fishy way for the media to make dosh

Gob of the Wash is in London at the moment for the Chelsea Flower Show, so we’ve been going out to play in the evenings to take advantage of his escape from Lincolnshire.

We both have a fairly silly sense of humour, so last night we went to Leicester Square to watch Richard Herring record his podcast.

He says he started it because he wanted more creative control and liked the fact the internet was ‘do it yourself’ (in reality I reckon it’s cos he wants to swear like a trooper without getting shouted at by the TV bosses). The podcast’s free to download, but he charges a tenner to watch the recording, which covers the costs of the theatre and reportedly leaves him with a wage of about £84 for the show.

It’s an idea which interests me as a media geek and Matthew as a third of farming’s intermittent podcast troupe, Pure Tilth.

We often chat about how to make new media profitable – he tried but didn’t succeed in getting sponsorship for his audio shows, while trying to get financial backing for videos and podcasts at Farmers Weekly is something I think about a fair bit.

Compared with some of the publications within our publishing group, FW has to work harder to convince companies to get behind our online stuff. Offer advertisers space in the magazine though, and they bite our hands off.

I often wonder whether it’s because we haven’t yet hit on a format that really appeals to the imaginations of farming advertisers, or if agriculture’s a bit late to catch on, preferring the traditional, tried-and-tested methods of the past.

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Fighting fire with fire – how farming won’t win friends

I had several failed attempts at starting a blog before I really got my teeth into writing this one (and I probably only stuck with this because I paid for the domain name and, being northern, I hate seeing money go to waste). It’s not that I lost perseverance in writing posts, it’s because I find this kind of writing terrifying.

As a reporter, news articles gives me anonymity – I don’t have to offer my opinion in my stories because the point of my job is to be fair and impartial, and I like being able to hide behind my reporter’s guise. Blogs are completely different though – I’m sharing my views here and every time I write a post I spend the next day or so panicking that someone’s going to leave a comment telling me I’m an idiot or that I’ve mortally offended them. It took me ages to find the right tone and my blogging ‘voice’ too.

So I found it interesting that an article by Richard Keller, the editor of US farm website AgProfessional, advocated journalists writing articles in the way they speak around the coffee machine – inflammatory language and all.

He reckons name-calling and sensational language in articles is a way to get attention and points to the way organisations like PETA have grabbed headlines through ‘false facts’ – “claiming facts that are nothing more than opinions or lies”.
Agriculture should fight fire with fire he says, using sensational language to counter arguments and “inspire people” into taking notice of how brilliant the industry is.

I can’t say I share his views. For one, I doubt many people are that interested in the way I talk when I’m making a brew (how Nottingham Forest managed to concede so many goals against Blackpool has been a fairly constant rant for the last week or so).

I don’t think my opinions should be obvious in my news articles either. This will probably rile people in the blogosphere who argue that news is news, regardless of how it’s delivered, but I think news articles carry more weight if they are written in a serious, authoritative way. Heck, I’m a journalistic dinosaur – shoot me.

But most importantly, as I said after the Soil Association published its last report about food security and organic farming, I don’t think it’s the right thing to counter ‘false facts’ with name-calling.

Farming can’t fall into the trap of thinking that hurling insults is the only way of getting attention. People grow weary of inflammatory rhetoric – resorting to childish name-calling means when the industry does have something that’s really worth saying then people are more likely to dismiss it.

If agriculture wants to get people to take notice of the work it’s doing it needs to make itself more newsworthy – that includes speaking out when it’s doing something interesting and countering criticism with a united, rational message. It’s a slow process but, like finding your writing voice, it’s one I reckon is worth persevering with.

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Trouble already in DEFRA’s paradise…

Oh dear, things aren’t looking so good for DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman – and she hasn’t even been in the job a week.

There were rumblings of discontent at the weekend over possible conflicts of interest between Cazza’s new post and her links to food and bio-tech lobbying company Spelman, Cormack and Associates, which she ran with her hubby, Mark, until last year.

While she signed over her share of the business, the firm’s bio-tech and GM food clients are working in the sector she’s now in charge of regulating.

A bit of digging around in Farmers Weekly Towers yesterday afternoon, however, seemed to uncover that the conflicts of interest don’t stop there.

It turns out that Mark is a managing director at Accenture – the IT company responsible for the widely-derided computer system used by the Rural Payments Agency to hand out subsidies to farmers.

Accenture was given the seven-year, £35m contract in 2003, but since then costs have spiralled to £350m. The system’s been given a kicking by MPs, who reckon the only way to sort out the mess is to scrap it and start again.

There’s been a lot of interest over how a new government would deal with the mess of the RPA and its software, and with Accenture’s contract up for renewal next year there’s  going to be even more attention paid to whether it gets renewed.

An RPA mole told me a few months ago that he reckoned the agency’s in a “stranglehold” with the IT companies it works with – apparently the software’s so complicated and designed in such a way that only the IT firms know how it works. If that is the case and DEFRA has no choice but to renew the contract then it’s going to be interesting to see how Cazza and the department bats down any accusations of nepotism.

I’m starting to wonder if it might be worth having a flutter here

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Sparkling stories

Whenever we’re sent an abysmally-written story or press release at FW Towers, Mr News Editor and I jokingly say we’re going to bin it because there’s “no way you can glitter a pile of manure”.

Apparently we’re wrong though, as a visit to the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain yesterday proved:

Blossom
Chris uses elephant dung from Whipsnade zoo in a lot of his paintings, which he decorates with map pins and copious amounts of glitter. It’s all very sparkly, but a bit weird, even for my often unusual artistic tastes.

Maybe a livestock farmer ought to give him a ring to see if he’s in the market for some cattle manure. It might help them out with their NVZ and slurry storage problems

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Take your time, it’s only a deadline…

It’s taken long enough, but we’ve finally got ourselves a new DEFRA secretary. Caroline Spelman was announced as the department’s head honcho at about 7pm last night.

If I were paranoid, I’d say the politicians were timing their announcements just to wind us journos up. Gordy decided to tell everyone he was stepping down at 5pm (probably just as most of the national newspapers were getting ready to set their pages), while we were on our third version of the lead story for this week’s Farmers Weekly, ready to push the button to send the magazine to the printer, when Cazza got the official nod.

It was an interesting day, if not incredibly frustrating. We had all expected Nick Herbert to get the top DEFRA job, or Tim Farron if the Lib Dems decided that was one of the six ministerial posts they wanted.

Then at about 3pm we starting hearing rumours from contacts at Westminster that Spelman was going to take the helm. Cue a rewritten story so we had something ready in case that was announced. It got to 6pm and we still hadn’t had anything confirmed – there were hundreds of Tweets about it, but when I traced them back they had come from my initial speculative Tweet three hours earlier.

With minutes to go before our deadline, we decided to hedge our bets and run with a story that didn’t confirm Spelman as DEFRA boss. Of course, that was the point the job got announced.

There are aspects of print journalism which I prefer to the online kind, but the panic of print deadlines when you’re waiting for the news to happen is something which quickly goes from fun to scary. Print news quickly dates, but it would’ve been incredibly demoralising if the news had been totally outdated before the copies of FW had even been put in the post.

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How do badgers fair in a coalition?

Who’da thunk we’d manage to drag the election out this long, eh? Even as someone who loves politics, I’m starting to feel a bit fatigued by the uncertainty of it all.

Other political nuts are obviously getting over-tired and grizzly about the whole thing too – that’s the only excuse I can think of for Adam Boulton’s embarrassing temper tantrum yesterday, anyway.

My irritation about the situation though is being compounded by the endless comments in and by the media about the fact we are facing a second unelected Prime Minister in a row now Gordy’s pledged to stand down.

“We face a situation where none of the people who took part on the televised debates will end up leading us,” one hack bleated.

“The TV debates counted for nothing now there’s a chance none of them could be PM,” another commentator wrote on Twitter.

I hadn’t realised managing to stand up through three televised debates was the test that gauged whether you were suitable to lead the country.

I hadn’t realised that I was voting for who I wanted to be Prime Minister either. Am I the only person who was daft enough to vote for the MP who I thought was going to do the best job for my constituency, rather than voting in an X-Factor style popularity contest for a figurehead?

Anyway, whinging aside, any coalition could have some interesting outcomes for agriculture. I’d love to be a fly on the wall once any animal health talks started up between the pro-badger cull Lib Dems anti-cull Labour…

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Never steal a journalist’s sarnie…

There are times when the person you’re interviewing frustrates you so much you find yourself giving them a death-stare in the hope that it’ll scare them into answering your questions.

There are times when you put the phone down and use a few choice words to describe the person on the other end.

But I’ve never got to the point where I’ve been quite as apoplectic as Sky News’ Adam Boulton yesterday when interviewing Alistair Campbell.

I love this comparison someone made on Twitter:

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Real interest in Real Food

I’ve got the feeling my stomach’s currently trying to work out exactly why I’ve fed it (in chronological order) olive tapenade, strawberry fudge, sausage in onion marmalade, honey yoghurt, salted chocolate and a venison pasty today.

No, it’s not a new diet I’m trying out – I’ve been to the Real Food Festival at Earls Court, and I’ve been sampling.

I initially went along to pay a visit to Tony, one of my lovely Nuffield chums, who had a stand there selling some of his Elan Valley mutton. I reckon Tony could be the most well-travelled sheep farmer in Wales, as he’s already been to Norway and Iceland to learn different ways of processing mutton. Just from those trips he’s come up with some salamis and a mutton ham, which is delicious (oh yeah, add that to the list of things I’ve eaten).

Tony gave a little talk on his mutton on the Hybu Cig Cymru (Meat Promotion Wales) stand too. It was strange seeing one of my fellow Nuffielders in action – I felt dead proud as he stood in front of the crowd and talked about his farm so animatedly.

Tony
And his ethusiasm for talking to people about his product looked as though it paid off – he had a steady stream of people at his stall every time I passed.

Aside from the Real Food angle (sorry, Matthew, I didn’t dare ask the PR people where the fake food was), there were some Real Farming attractions there too. The piglets, buffalo and sheep were slightly inconguous in an exhibitoin centre, but there were people flocked aorund them all day as farmers explained how they reared the animals and produced meat from them.

One even gave a shearing demonstration, telling jokes along the way as he explained why it was necessary to cut the wool from the sheep,that it wasn’t cruel to do it and what the wool could be used for. The demonstration was watched by a couple of hundred people and it was great to see there was such interest in what most sheep farmers would think was a fairly mundane job.

shearingCrowd

And it must have been interesting if it managed to tear my housemate away from sample tray at the chocolate fudge stand…

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