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FOOT AND MOUTH DISEASE LESSONS LEARNED INQUIRY

Note of Meeting

Date: 29 April 2002

Location: 9 Whitehall

Present: Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister’s Director of Strategy and Communications

Martin Hurst

Dr Iain Anderson, Inquiry Chairman

Alun Evans, Secretary to the Inquiry

 

1. Dr Anderson thanked Mr Campbell for meeting the Inquiry and stressed that the

Inquiry was looking forward at the lessons to be learned from the crisis. During

discussion the following points were made:

 

2. No. 10 Downing Street was involved from the outset, but more directly so within a

matter of weeks as the crisis developed. Once it was clear that this was a major

crisis, it was also clear that the centre had to take more direct responsibility for

communications issues. This was not a case of "No 10 taking control". Resources

needed to be brought to bear and the centre was best able to do that. That was the

reality of the situation. In any crisis of this scale the centre would become heavily

involved. Sometimes Government departments saw that as something of a

criticism of what they had been doing, but it was absolutely not the case. Most

departments were not used to dealing with crises and it was important that

messages coming from Government did not increase the crisis unnecessarily in any

way. That latter point had, perfectly reasonably - lain behind the desire of MAFF to

maintain the lead in communication.

 

3. The nature of the media today – its role and its mindset – was such that it did not

see its function as being one of assisting the Government in a crisis. This was

perhaps in contrast to the role of the media in, for example, the 1967 outbreak when

there had been much more of a culture of national effort in tackling the disease.

The media did not seek to be destructive, but in many instances, in seeking stories,

they inevitably looked at every angle to highlight negative aspects in order to

criticise or challenge the Government. That process therefore had to be managed

carefully. For example the message that the countryside was closed was, in large

part, and by the end of March, a media message. The Government’s line (which

was a more complex one) that if people were in the countryside they should avoid

farms and livestock in particular became one of "the countryside is closed." The

BBC, for example, had gone so far as to say that this was the picture throughout the

country, which was patently not the case and certainly not helpful. The media

mindset was that it was there to challenge.

 

4. Dr Anderson suggested that the Prime Minister’s statement that the countryside

was open implied to many people that he did not know the full extent of the situation

in the country because it was very clear in many places that the countryside was

closed. Mr Campbell admitted that there had been hours of briefing on this

complicated issue. The Prime Minister had been trying to support the countryside –

and there was a clear distinction between visiting pubs/ reopened properties in the

countryside and some footpaths - but was also very aware of the fine balancing act

between the farmers and the tourist industry in the countryside. He had also had an

international audience which needed to be borne in mind.

 

5. Dr Anderson suggested that, looking at the media analysis of the crisis, it was clear

that up until about mid March, the media coverage had been fairly factual and, for

the most part, complimentary of the Government’s efforts. However, after the policy

announcements on 15 March and the announcement that the crisis was under

control, coverage had rapidly become more hostile.

 

6. Mr Campbell agreed, in broad terms, with that summary and added that at the start

of FMD the Chief Veterinary Officer and the Minister had come across well. There

had been much good, transparent media work. However he felt that, in future, a

larger ministerial team should perhaps be used at an earlier stage to field questions

and to explain the Government’s overall strategy rather than the precise local

details which they could not always be expected to know. He emphasised the

importance of regional TV and media presentation and said it might have been an

idea to appoint regional ministers earlier on in the crisis. By trying to play down the

sense of crisis from mid-March, it was clear that there were too many unhappy

farmers to maintain confidence. At that point, media criticism of Government had

taken off and there was little that could be done in the short term. "The farming

community" became a lodestone for opinion in the countryside, and any semblance

of media balance was lost.

 

7. Turning to the idea of developing a larger Ministerial team to be available from early

on in any further crisis, Mr Campbell said that it was also important to have

ministers who were trained to handle media enquiries and information. The Chief

Veterinary Officer (CVO) and Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) had been excellent at

responding to technical questions. They were less used to dealing with the media

on general issues of Government policy.

 

8. Asked whether he felt that the CSA had got the right balance between assurance

and concern about the seriousness of the emerging situation, Mr Campbell thought

that, for the most part, he had and had been a good media performer. He felt that

the CSA’s analyses were pretty compelling. They gave a sense of an impending

and real crisis. However, the differences of opinions and (in some senses) advice

within Government all made it difficult to present a united front. At the start too

there had been a reluctance to accept that there was a crisis.

 

9. Asked whether he thought it was helpful for the modellers to have gone to the

media on 21 March to argue that the disease was not under control, Mr Campbell

said it was a difficult time but ultimately it may have helped in that it speeded up a

widespread recognition of the severity of the crisis.

 

10. Asked what changes that had brought about in terms of the Government’s overall

communications strategy for FMD, Mr Campbell replied none directly. Once the

CSA had become involved, the strategy moved from one of "pre-crisis

management" – in which we were presenting things as factually as we could, but in

which we were seeking to avoid a sense of crisis - to one of crisis management – in

which there was a sense of the whole weight of government being put behind the

task in hand. The Prime Minister had had a lot of faith in the CSA’s broad

approach.

 

11. Asked about the effect that the forthcoming General Election had on disease

control, Mr Campbell said none. The Prime Minister’s focus and his overall

approach had throughout been one of determination to get on top of the disease. In

the first phase the emphasis had been on keeping the outbreak in perspective,

ensuring there was no panic buying of food, and reassuring the public about the

safety of meat. Once the real crisis arrived, the Prime Minister was completely

focussed on sorting it out. Obviously he had considered the timing of the General

Election but, at the end of the day, it was the foot and mouth outbreak that had led

to the local elections being postponed and any potential General Election on that

day had been postponed. Dr Anderson suggested that the view expressed by some

to the Inquiry could be characterised as follows: "At first, the Government’s reaction

was too complacent as it was focussed on ensuring the Election would take place in

May. In the second phase, it was too draconian, as Ministers desperately tried to

sort it all out before the Election.". Mr Campbell replied that the Prime Minister had

been clear that there could not be an Election in May. The country would not have

accepted the idea that the Prime Minister was fighting an Election instead of the

disease.

 

12. Dr Anderson said that, during the Inquiry’s visits around the country, the

Government’s communications effort had been vilified. Mr Campbell acknowledged

that there had been weaknesses. However he cited two separate areas: media

communications at national and international levels; and direct communications.

He was never confident, at the early stages, in the management information being

provided by MAFF. The general public could not find out, even at a very basic

level what was going on either. The MAFF/DEFRA web-site had been reasonably

good, as were joined up communications, but there were many issues related to

basic factual information about the disease that has to be sorted out.

 

13. The Inquiry had heard that NFU communications were a far better source of

information than the Government’s. Mr Campbell disagreed. He said that in crisis

situations the Government always became the easy and main target of any

criticism. Once it was seen as beleaguered it became difficult to get any balance

back into the situation.

 

14. Asked about the co-ordinating mechanisms for media operations, Mr Campbell said

that, at the start, there had been some resistance to his co-ordination. However,

from the beginning of April, proper media operations were up and running and were

operating much more smoothly. A series of Foot and Mouth News Grids had been

produced to co-ordinate Government activities better and this had been linked with

better and more up-to-date data on the spread of the disease. It also became clear

that, to get out factual information into the media, key messages had to be repeated

constantly. The strategic management of the crisis became crucial. He stressed

that, in any crisis, it was always important to remember that at some stage it would

be over.

 

15. While trying to have an intelligent debate about the disease it was important to

organise media operations to ensure maximum impact of ministerial visits to the

affected areas. Overnight media monitoring was crucial, as was generating clear

messages and making sure that the public understood fully what the Government

was trying to do. One of the messages that the Government had been trying to

convey was that it was a very difficult situation but that the Government as a whole

was now doing all it could to tackle the crisis. Also, in the atmosphere of real

hostility in the press that prevailed at the time, it was difficult to get complicated

messages over to the public.

 

16. Once the military became involved that was a huge plus point. At that stage, even

the pictures of pyres became less intimidatory.

 

17. Asked about the value of frequent press briefings, Mr Campbell said that, initially,

the regular factual briefings by MAFF had been helpful. The twice-daily lobby press

briefings by No 10 were of course along standing institution and were also useful

provided that there was relevant information to impart. However, both MAFF and

No 10 briefings were less useful when there was nothing additional to say beyond

what was already in the public domain. At times they then often became something

of a game between the briefers and journalists, which was unhelpful. The lesson

was that it was essential for the briefings to be honest and open and for the briefing

team to remain in control of the scope of the briefing. Briefings were most effective

when there was something concrete to say. It was arguable that MAFF should

have augmented national briefing by more good targeted local information available

about the situation on the ground.

 

18. Expanding on that point Mr Campbell argued that the local media were vital in the

equation. The public tended to be more trusting of their local media. It was vital to

understand that just because something appeared in the national media it did not

necessarily mean it was accurate or that it had been picked up locally. Local radio

and local press were key as were other areas of the wider media - such as the

women’s press. That aspect could have been approached in a more co-ordinated

way, with messages to do, for example, with health and food safety.

 

19. Asked about how integrated the media should have been in tackling the disease (for

example via attendance at the JCC "bird-table" briefings, Mr Campbell remained

sceptical. Dr Anderson pointed out that it had worked during the Y2K project, and

that the NFU had been involved in JCC anyway. Mr Campbell accepted that it

might be an issue worth considering further.

 

20. Turning to what he thought were the key lessons in communications, Mr Campbell

emphasised the importance of learning from experience. For example, the lessons

he had learnt during the Kosovo crisis on media handling had been integrated into

the international communications response after September 11th. In the foot and

mouth crisis, albeit a domestic situation, there was much work that could be done in

analysing target audiences in a similar way and drawing out lessons for

communications with farmers, the tourism industry and others. Different Ministers

could have been used to put across the Government’s message, without always

relying on Nick Brown to take the lead. No two crises were essentially the same, but

at some point all crises led to be addressed at the centre, with full and open cross-departmental

co-operation.

 

21. There was also an international role that should have been developed more

thoroughly during the crisis. The French media had exploited the disease and the

Government had been limited in its response. We could and should have spoken to

the foreign press generally on a more regular basis.</P>

 

Asked about the detail of the timing surrounding the media coverage of the case of

Phoenix the calf, Mr Campbell said he did not recall the precise timing of the

release of particular information and its relation to the finalising of policy decisions.

He offered to provide further detail to the Inquiry on this point after consulting the

key players who had been involved at No 10.

FMD Inquiry Secretariat

May 2002