In The Spotlight

Sun, 20/02/2022 - 17:26pm

I thought there was value in reflecting both on the recent BBC Panorama programme, ‘A Cow’s Life’ and the social media reaction to it over the last week.

We were first approached by Panorama by phone just before Christmas, and to say we were reluctant to have anything to do with it is an understatement.  The reason?  Our participation in BBC Scotland’s ‘Dark Side of Dairy’ programme several years previously had not been positive.

We were then, perhaps, naïve in understanding what taking part in a programme like that involves. Speaking to the interviewer is only the start, because what follows is a feeling of powerlessness over how the story will be told, and which parts of the interview will make the final edit.

That previous programme, while showing our farm in a favourable light, led to an almighty uproar in Scotland. There were debates in parliament, criticism of us for betraying our industry, wave after wave of organised attacks from vegan activists on social media and even personal hostility towards our team members within their local community.

When Panorama phoned, David and I said to each other “this has a Dark Side of Dairy ring about it” and we ruled out taking part there and then.

So what changed our mind? Well, we spoke to the production team at length, we asked many more questions this time around, and we also hoped there would be an opportunity to talk about soil carbon and ecology as well as animal welfare. But just because we get excited about soil carbon sequestration, doesn’t mean that it makes particularly good TV...

The Panorama team visited our farm in early January and as soon as they showed us the footage filmed at the farm in Wales - and recorded our reaction to it - we understood where this programme was going. I asked them to stop the video because I simply couldn’t watch any more. I was happy that my contributions were left on the cutting room floor, I’m comfortable with how they presented our farm in the programme, we were pleased to see cow-calf separation being raised as an issue at long last and we thought other contributors spoke tremendously well - especially Abi Reader. 

In the week following the broadcast, what was just the same as before was the attacks on our social media by vegan activists – and my use of the term activist here is really important.

I have written previously that had life taken a different path for me and I had never met David, then I would now, almost certainly, be vegan.  And so I will never criticise anyone for being vegan.  I know that for many people adopting a vegan lifestyle is a sign of concerned citizens wanting to make a difference. I understand that concern, and I understand the passion and the integrity that drives dietary decisions.

I also know that around 20% of our customers are vegan or plant-based, and buy our cheese for their non-vegan family members, often children. Some of the most heartfelt comments and messages we receive on social media are from vegans.

However, we have had to ban a few individuals from our Facebook page this past week, and that’s something we have never done before, so I wanted to explain why.

We can handle criticism of us. We notice and value the strong debate that frequently takes place in the comments of our posts – debating the merits of different systems of food production and of dietary choices is a good thing, and we don’t interfere with those conversations.

What we do have a problem with is activists targeting individuals in an organised way through our social media channels. We believe that people have a right to express how they feel without facing hostility or abuse from others. This has happened a couple of times in the past week, and where we have noticed it, we have taken action.  If it happens again in the future, we would welcome people bringing it to our attention.

We completely understand that dairy can be a polarising issue. We understand that people have very strong views, and we know that a programme like Panorama can lead to people wanting to express their views and their emotional reaction to what was screened. But I would ask everyone who interacts on our social media channels, to please respect the views of other people, ESPECIALLY those whose views are different to your own.

One final point I’d like to make is about the footage that was shown. 

It can be easy to pass judgement on the actions of another person, and how could anyone ever excuse someone who hits a cow in the face with a shovel? But those people we saw doing just that on Panorama are as much a victim of an inhumane system of food production as the cows. They work unacceptably long hours in a highly pressured, deadline-driven system that has, perhaps, made them no longer capable of assessing what, for the rest of us, appears shocking and upsetting behaviour. We have always said it is the system that is the main problem with dairy, not necessarily the individual people within that system.

What we want to see is a complete system change in the dairy industry, a transformation that improves the working conditions of people as well as the welfare of animals. The only way that change will happen is for people to demand it.

The other theme that has emerged on social media this week, particularly in response to David’s recent blog, is people wanting to know more about the detail of what we do here, and why. As you’ll know if you’ve been following us for a wee while, it’s a big and complicated story, and we have jokingly spoken in the past about putting the full story in a book. 

Well, we’ve stopped joking about it and we’ve started writing. Tell us what you would like to know.

Wilma Finlay