I was recently asked by a French forester to explain a little about the UK arboricultural and silvicultural industry and its links directly to the public. This was subsequent to the French media reporting on the British psyche to horticulture and the risks it posed to trees through import and plant /tool movements, which was far from complimentary.
It is common to see the UK media publishing tree stories such as – ‘Butchers’ face £20,000 fine for pruning operation that reduced ancient willow tree to a stump’ (Daily Mail headline from 9th November 2010). Picked up by the LJN and used as case study to display antipathy towards land practitioners, the reality was ascertained that this tree had been subject to a pollard in order to prolong the life of a tree. There was no subsequent reporting to redress the balance and no further explanation from the national UK media to help alleviate concerns, which would have been exasperated across other communities when similar, routine maintenance was carried out.
One cannot look towards the psyche of an average Briton to find the problem with regards the disenfranchisement of tree professionals and practitioners in UK society as a whole. It is perhaps a combination of factors and certainly the idea to cut red tape by the coalition government may be regarded as a method to remove a cloud of ‘planning’ lingo which has settled on UK urban forestry. But blame should not be apportioned in this direction; the laws and regulations are confusing but need to be complex to ensure good practice and therefore an allowance to take each scenario on its own merits. The fact is that the media find it increasingly difficult to fully investigate certain procedures and as a result ‘bureaucracy’ is blamed. This may argued to be due to time constraints or budget, but surely it is quite simply lazy journalism stemming from the fact the PR world are spoon feeding the journalists information which has to be regarded as fact.
The British read a lot of newspapers, listen to a lot of radio and watch a lot of television. I have frequently heard criticism of other nations media output as being inferior, particularly the French and on their behalf I must take umbrage with this. Yes their mainstream TV is mainly game shows and dubbed US shows, however the volume of high quality documentaries is enormous and 2 hour specials based around a particular landscape in a region of France is an almost nightly occurrence. There is no celebrity needed to help interpret, (as on the comparable weekly one hour UK show Countryfile), but an allowance for all those involved in the landscape to discuss the issues of importance, without interruption. Also in France any conference of importance, such as the recent ICF event – ‘Trees, People and the Built Environment’ would have gained national TV coverage, and more if trees and forests held the same interest in the general public as they currently do in the UK. Yet outside of the industry, few people will have known about the conference.
I was staggered when told that during the campaign against PFE disposal, long after the lists of celebrities had written against the government plans, that Oliver Rackham had not yet been asked to comment. As a forester the campaign was doubly frustrating, both the government and the core of the campaign simply did not understand the issues at play. In the first parliamentary vote, there was only one MP, (Dr Sarah Wollaston of Totnes), who raised the issues of disease threats to trees and what would happen to research and control with a diminished FC. The Save Our Woods website thankfully did much to redress this balance and gained considerable credence by asking Oliver Rackham and others for expert opinion, but the whole campaign highlighted the flaws within the UK media system and the PR machines considered so vital for NGOs & Governmental Agencies.
This problem was ongoing well before the PFE disposal campaign. And had compounded to the extent where PR was feeding back to the experts seemingly oblivious to the qualifications and knowledge of those in the industry. For example I once attended a conference full of UK foresters, when a representative of a national land owning NGO took the stage and started to describe coppice. Not in any new light following research or a history of the technique in a particular region – he simply and patronisingly explained the dictionary term of coppice, with a helpful powerpoint display to ensure we were all able to spell the word. Very similar to the article by Monty Don published during the PFE campaign. Subsequently I have attended a talk on hedgerows, with similar spiel, good for the layman with below average intelligence but hardly suitable to a room full of professionals. The industry has obliged this sort of behaviour for too long as the power of PR teams grew and grew to the point where the panel to decide the future of forestry is more representative of those NGOs with the strongest PR presence against those representing the timber industry, (surely a reflection of a Forestry Minister who has not yet displayed a knowledge of SFM in its modern entity and believes that the value of a tree is only contained within its timber value).
The UK has produced many tree experts, disproportionate to its size geographically. The research carried out in the UK is used worldwide and is widely acclaimed and no international conference is complete without the presence of a UK academic or scientist. Its practitioner base is highly qualified and reknown for their skills outside of the UK but subject to easy abuse by ‘cowboys’ in their home country due to the disenfranchisement described above. These cowboys in turn provide more media fodder and further exasperate the problem of a disenfranchised UK arboricultural and forestry industry. I know of only one television programme presented by a tree expert about trees – Tony Kirkhams’ ‘The Trees That Made Britain’.
When watching the immensely popular French landscape documentaries, so slated by the UK media, it is so refreshing to watch the local experts; academics, scientists and practitioners speaking at length & uninterrupted about what is happening to various elements of the landscape. The fact that even the BBC cannot even report on climate change without the so called need to find some unqualified hack to counter argue peer reviewed research is a sorry state of affairs that leads to simple confusion within the populace and a very apparent distrust of experts in favour of celebrities or high profile journalists, whose only knowledge on the subject comes by way of a brief and usually inaccurate press release from a single issue organisations.
Thank goodness for Twitter, the arrival of many high profile and academic groups onto it; Twitter is slowly redressing the balance. The real fear of twitters’ power by the established media is very apparent and there is noticeable action to ensure continued status from media and PR groups against the relatively recent flurry of people who can now investigate the actual truths and the relevant research with ease and campaign accordingly.