Muckspreader 29 August 02
Private Eye

At a time when our dairy farmers are going out of business at a rate of hundreds a month, it might have seemed good journalistic sense for Channel Four to produce a 75-minute documentary on this crisis called Milk Wars.  But apart from the fact that they chose to put it out at 6.30 pm on a hot Saturday evening in August, it turned out to be no more than yet another illustration of why our media are wholly incapable of understanding the disaster engulfing Britain's countryside. The film turned out to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about how, two years ago, dairy farmer David Handley led his 'Farmers for Action' guerrilla campaign against the supermarkets which eventually blossomed into the fuel blockades of September 2000 (the subject of a second film shown a week later). We were treated to endless voyeuristic shots of Handley shouting down telephones or addressing unhappy knots of his fellow farmers in the middle of the night as they blockaded supermarket depots. The film turned the farmers' campaign into soap opera, complete with an intimate view of the strain on Handley's marriage as his poor wife grappled with mounting bills and ever fiercer letters from the bank.
         This might have passed for rather sadistic entertainment. But not once did the film stop to ask why it was all happening. Why were Britain's dairy farmers getting only 14p a litre for their milk, less than the cost of production? It was all very well for Handley himself to carry on as if those greedy supermarkets were the only villains of the piece, grinding British farmers into the ground to maximise their own profits. But why were the supermarkets able to buy milk so much more cheaply elsewhere? Any idea that the role of journalism might be to ask such basic questions didn't even arise.
Had the film-makers shown an ounce of curiosity it might not have taken them more than15 seconds to discover that the chief reason why the price British farmers receive for their milk is so low is that the supermarkets can buy milk at giveaway prices from Ireland and the continent. Which immediately raises the next question: why, if the Irish and French farmers operate under the same common agricultural policy as their British competitors, can they apparently produce their milk so much more cheaply, even though on average British dairy herds are 30 percent more productive than those elsewhere in the European Union?
There is no great secret about the answer to this question.  Firstly, as this column last reported back in April, it is because the EU-wide milk price is set in euros. The devaluation of the euro has thus in the past three years given the euroland farmers a hefty price advantage. Secondly, thanks to the Brussels milk quota system, the continental and Irish farmers have huge surpluses which they can afford to offload into Britain at knockdown prices. Thirdly, the Irish, French, German and Belgian farmers have governments which do everything they can to assist them, while our government does the opposite. Our competitors make full use of the Brussels intervention system which guarantees farmers a minimum price for their milk, while British ministers refuse to sign up for intervention because they are quite happy to see our smaller dairy farmers go to the wall. None of this is any mystery, except to our television film-makers, the farmers themselves and of course their supposed 'leaders' in the NFU. But as usual, it seems, the truth is too boring to be worth reporting. Much better stick to soap opera.