An important news story by Mat Born - missed somehow on Thursday 30th Aug

Mud slinging on the foot and mouth front line

UNTIL now, one of the biggest challenges for journalists covering foot and mouth has been to keep a crisis entering its eighth month high on the news agenda.

But, increasingly, they are finding themselves faced with a new test: the hostility of the men from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responsible for containing the disease.

The latest outbreak around Allendale, in Northumberland, has brought with it a spate of reports about Defra officials obstructing journalists as they attempt to cover the story.

Earlier this week, Charlie Hedley, a photographer with the Newcastle-based North News, was trying to take pictures at a newly disinfected farm when Defra officials stopped him and made him strip off his clothes - even though he was on a public road at the time.

They then sprayed his car and discarded clothes with disinfectant, ruining several items. After a protracted stand-off, Hedley relented and left. But a mile down the road, he was pulled over by the police and questioned for more than half an hour.

"I've got no doubt the police were tipped off by the Defra officials and given details of my car," he said.

Ian Dovaston, North-East correspondent for Sky News, found his attempts to film from a public road similarly thwarted by Defra officials who - after threatening him and his crew with trespass for straying on to "Defra territory" - stood in front of the camera to block it.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a BBC crew filming a cull near Allendale was reportedly made to strip in public and the crew's equipment was sprayed with disinfectant - ruining it.

Nor is it simply journalists in remote rural areas who are encountering an increasingly antagonistic Defra. One broadcast journalist, who asked not be named, said there was a growing culture of "obstructiveness" among Defra officials in London.

It was now a matter of course, she said, for reporters not to be told about press conferences until the eleventh hour, for requests for interviews with ministers to be ignored, and inquiries for information to be treated in a "deeply unpleasant" manner.

To some extent, the hostility is understandable. From the outset of the foot and mouth crisis, the legion of journalists criss-crossing the country has been regarded with some suspicion by officials, who fear they may have contributed to the spread of the virus.

Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, raised the spectre again this month when he accused BBC helicopters of fanning the disease by ignoring no-fly zones - an allegation the corporation has denied.

Following the deluge of critical press coverage of the Government's handling of the crisis, it is perhaps little wonder if Defra's affection for journalists has waned.

As one reporter put it: "They've been working all hours on this for months. They're knackered, probably bored senseless and patently sick of the endless phone calls."

Yet reporters who have been covering the crisis from the outset insist there has been a deeper change in Defra's attitude towards the press. Hedley said there was a "new hostility", typified by his run-in on Monday.

"As soon as I got out of the car and they saw my cameras, they got very aggressive," he added. "Even though I was on a public road, and there were other members of the public driving past, they told me I was in a no-go area and had to move on."

The subsequent police questioning of his movements was "completely over the top," he said. "They put me in the back of their van and gave me a real grilling. They did a vehicle check, wanted to know my parents' address, everything.

"They said my details would be passed on to the trading standards officers [responsible for monitoring breaches of the Blue Box bio-security zone] for further investigation. All the time, a Defra official was sitting there, giggling."

One newspaper journalist said he was sure many roads in Northumberland had been closed off specifically in order to keep the press away. Others suspect Defra has been deliberately holding back details about new outbreaks.

"I get the feeling we're not hearing very quickly about new farms being affected," one reporter said. "Possibly, after Cumbria, they have decided to dripfeed the bad news rather than let it all out at once."

Defra insists there has been no edict to hinder journalists. Indeed, a spokesman said staff were expected to facilitate reporters' needs as best they could.

Yet many feel that such protestations of open government run counter to the department's own culture of secrecy, epitomised by its requirement - only recently dropped - that farmers seeking reimbursement for disinfecting their farms had to sign up to the Official Secrets Act.

Others, however, suspect that cock-up rather than conspiracy is behind Defra's hostility. One journalist said: "Throughout the crisis, there's been no central strategy on the culling.

"Regulations have been changing almost daily. Inevitably, in such chaotic circumstances, rules get breached and Defra doesn't want those exposed in the media spotlight."

Farmers themselves generally welcome press attention. "The majority of those affected by foot and mouth recognise the media is performing a valuable task," Dovaston said. "The farmers' biggest fear is that their plight will be ignored."