Newspaper gets the interview it wanted - after 18 months
By Nikki Sargeson
Margaret Beckett has ended her long silence and finally granted the Western Morning News an interview.
The rural affairs secretary this week spoke to the paper's London editor, Jason Groves, about some of Britain's most pressing rural concerns - 18 months after the WMN first requested an interview.
After failing to secure a question and answer session with the politician through the regular channels, the WMN decided to take the unusual step of calling her office every day.
And after ten days of requests and ten days of embarrassing coverage by the WMN, which described her department's excuses, the paper was finally granted an interview.
During the two-hour interview Jason tackled the politician about issues including foot and mouth, the controls against illegal meat imports and the massive power of supermarkets.
Editor Barrie Williams said: "The WMN, which is known for its in-depth coverage of rural affairs, first requested an interview with Mrs Beckett in June last year, a few weeks after the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was created and she was appointed as Secretary of State.
"The request has been made at regular intervals ever since, but officials have always replied that her diary is 'very full'."
He added: "We should not have had to telephone her press officers every day for ten days to get the face to face meeting we wanted. To have held out for so long was bad manners, not to us, but to the people of the rural Westcountry who we represent and on whose behalf she ought to be working."
During the interview Mrs Beckett told Jason that restoring prosperity to the British farming industry and the rural economy as a whole was a "top priority" and she would encourage youngsters to go into farming to be part of the future of the industry.
She also said that the decision to hold three inquiries into the foot and mouth crisis was the right one and their speed and independence justified the Government's refusal to hold a full, open and accountable public hearing.
Barrie said: "It was like getting blood out of stone, but we finally got Margaret Beckett to talk to the rural Westcountry. Now she must act to help rural Britain.
"The battle to get this Government to take rural concerns seriously is a long way from being over. In fact, it has hardly begun."DAY NINE: AND MRS BECKETT FINALLY AGREES TO MEET THE WMN
09:00 - 08 November 2002
Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett last night finally agreed to an interview with the WMN, but only after imposing conditions designed to limit the range of questions asked.
The interview, which was first requested in June last year, is due to take place at lunchtime today. But in an effort to limit the number of questions that can be asked by the WMN, Mrs Beckett's officials have also invited a number of other regional newspapers to take part - effectively turning the event into a press conference. None of the other newspapers involved are thought to have requested an interview and will have little time in which to prepare detailed questions.
Amid farcical scenes last night, officials from the press office of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were placing calls to the political editors of a series of regional newspapers in a desperate bid to rope them into the event. The journalists contacted include the political editors of at least two city-based newspapers who have little interest in rural affairs and who said they were unlikely to attend.
One political editor told the WMN: "The call came completely out of the blue. They were obviously desperate to get people along, because when I said I could not make it they asked me who else I thought might be interested."
A Defra spokesman denied that officials were trying to turn the event into a press conference and said that the event "would be considered as the offer of an interview".
The WMN, which is known for its in-depth coverage of rural affairs, first requested an interview with Mrs Beckett in June last year, a few weeks after Defra was created and she was appointed as Secretary of State. The request has been made at regular intervals ever since, but officials have always replied that her diary is "very full".
Last week the WMN decided to take the unusual step of calling Mrs Beckett's office every day after efforts to secure an interview through the usual channels of communication failed.
The new tactic is also partly driven by concern in the wider rural community that Mrs Beckett, who is the countryside's "champion" in the Cabinet, is failing to take sufficient interest in the problems facing rural communities.
The WMN has agreed to take part in today's event provided we are able to ask the full range of questions we had planned:
Rural areas are being deprived of serious investment in the road and rail networks compared with urban areas. What are you doing to see the balance redressed?
The fate of many rural post offices now hangs in the balance, even though they provide a lifeline for communities. Will you push for Government intervention?
Farmers are being strangled by bureaucracy. They are calling for an end to the outdated 20-day standstill rule on transporting livestock. When will you act?
What initiatives are being lined up to promote British food and ensure Government departments choose home-grown produce over foreign imports?
What are you doing to ensure British farmers get a fair price for their produce from the supermarket giants?
Will you act to prevent another foot and mouth crisis by investing more money in tightening up controls against illegal meat imports?
The lack of affordable homes is blighting rural communities with youngsters excluded from the housing market. What are you doing to encourage the Government to address the crisis in the Westcountry, having so far confined aid largely to the South East?
Measures in place for councils to insist homes are reserved for local people under planning guidelines are too bureaucratic. Will you bring pressure to bear to have the rules simplified?
Fewer and fewer young doctors want to go on to become a GP and it is becoming increasingly difficult to replace GPs in rural practices. How will you end this shortage?
Do you think the Government should stop local authorities dipping into other budgets to pay for fire brigades or extra police by giving them more realistic funds in the first place?
BECKETT SPEAKS - NOW SHE MUST ACT
09:00 - 09 November 2002
Politicians might like to pretend that the media has little or no influence on what they choose to do. And when the Western Morning News asked Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett yesterday if she was bothered by the bad press she was receiving over her apparent lack of interest in agriculture and other rural concerns, she told us: "I'm a politician, I'm used to it."
But the very fact that she granted us an interview - after ten days of requests and ten days of embarrassing coverage describing her department's excuses - proves the point. She was bothered by the negative publicity she was receiving and she did agree to speak to us because she wanted that damaging coverage to end. To that extent our tactics worked.
So we are happy today to say thank you to Mrs Beckett for finally agreeing to see us. It should not have taken more than 18 months for her to grant an interview to a newspaper covering such a large rural area. We should not have had to telephone her press officers every day for ten days to get the face to face meeting we wanted. To have held out for so long was bad manners, not to us, but to the people of the rural Westcountry who we represent and on whose behalf she ought to be working.
When she did, finally, speak to WMN London Editor Jason Groves yesterday she had some heartening and hopeful things to say. She promised that restoring prosperity to the British farming industry and the rural economy as a whole was a "top priority". She said she would encourage youngsters to go into farming to be part of the future of the industry. And she said she was frequently "nagging" other Government departments to buy more British food, instead of imports.
She gave us, in political parlance, the "warm words". No one can criticise her for that. It is what the Westcountry's farmers wanted to hear and they have waited long enough to hear her say it. Now they want to see her make things happen. The pathetically meagre 100 or so words she devoted to agriculture in her Labour Party conference speech gave most farmers the distinct impression Mrs Beckett had little interest and no sympathy for their plight. She sought to put that right yesterday.
But her comments were not all warm. She trotted out the same old mantra that Lord Haskins, Tony Blair's rural adviser, gave us earlier in the week when she called for a switch away from subsidies - but had precious little by way of concrete promises to put in their place. And Lord Haskins' vision of farming foresees a big reduction in the numbers working the land over the coming years. Not a very hopeful prospect for those now in farming or the young people that Mrs Beckett says she wants to encourage to join the industry.
She also fudged a question about reducing the massive power of the supermarkets to give farmers a fairer crack of the whip and ducked out of one asking her to suggest ways that farmers could improve the price paid to producers for their raw materials. We needed to hear more.
And on whether or not there should have been a public inquiry into the Government's handling of foot and mouth disease - for which many country people will never forgive New Labour - Mrs Beckett was just plain wrong. She said the speed and independence of the three inquiries that were held justified the Government's refusal to hold a full, open and accountable public hearing. That is absolute nonsense.
Little more than a month ago Margaret Beckett condemned the Western Morning News as a hostile newspaper and haughtily dismissed our attempts to question her after a foot and mouth disease hearing in Brussels. Yesterday she talked to us for two hours about some of the most pressing concerns in rural Britain today.
That won't make a jot of difference to the lives of rural dwellers struggling with poverty, poor services and an agricultural industry on its knees. But there were signs - small signs - that she at least appreciates the scale of the problem. But fine words, as country dwellers say, butter no parsnips - and rural Britain needs more than words right now.
It was like getting blood out of stone, but we finally got Margaret Beckett to talk to the rural Westcountry. Now she must act to help rural Britain. The battle to get this Government to take rural concerns seriously is a long way from being over. In fact, it has hardly begun.
YOU'VE GOT ME WRONG
Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett yesterday said that her "top priority" was to restore prosperity to the British farming industry and the wider rural economy.
In a long-awaited interview with the WMN, Mrs Beckett insisted that her critics were wrong in claiming that she did not care about the plight of the beleaguered farming industry.
Asked about her top priority for the countryside, she said: "It is prosperity and quality of life in rural areas, which obviously includes prosperity in food and farming."
Mrs Beckett also said that she saw no reason to discourage youngsters from joining an industry which many farmers believe has little future. "I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from going into farming," she said.
"Although you inevitably hear about people whose families would like them to go into farming and they are not doing so, you also hear of people who very much want to go into farming. Young farmers say to me: 'We do want a new course for British farming and we want to be part of it'."
Asked about the crushing supermarket power that means many farmers struggle to get a price that even covers the cost of production, Mrs Beckett talked about the importance of different parts of the supply chain working together, but had little tangible to offer.
"There isn't any easy, magic answer," she said, "because if there was they'd have found it long ago."
Farmers will also view with suspicion Mrs Beckett's enthusiasm for the views of Chris Haskins - Tony Blair's personal rural "tsar".
Mrs Beckett acknowledged that Lord Haskins was a "controversial" figure. But she said that his broad analysis had considerable merit.