When foot-and-mouth didn’t make the front page

How the UK media reported the last major foot-and-mouth outbreak in 1967.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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It is not only cows and sheep that have caught the foot-and-mouth bug – so have the UK media. According to the Guardian, from 24 March to 30 March 2001, British newspapers devoted 3385 column inches to foot-and-mouth – more than to any other story: overshadowing the conflict in the Balkans (1073 column inches), the Oscars (638 inches), and clashes in the Middle East (416 inches) (1).

Coverage of the last foot-and-mouth outbreak in 1967 was a different story. In November 1967, when the outbreak reached its peak, newspapers were too concerned with devaluation of the pound, conflicts in Aden and Vietnam, reform of the House of Lords and striking dockers to allow the spread of an animal disease to take up too much space. Forget angst-ridden editorials and five-page specials – in 1967 foot-and-mouth rarely made it on to the front page.

The Ministry of Agriculture’s announcement that foot-and-mouth had reached ‘epidemic proportions’ on 31 October 1967 was given just 86 words on page 2 of The Times – way below the then Labour government’s proposal to limit the powers of the House of Lords; the Vietcong bombing of the presidential palace in Saigon; the Electrical Trades Union’s ‘get tough’ policy on militant members; and the granting of bail to cannabis-possessing Brain Jones, ‘a guitarist with the Rolling Stones pop group’ (2).

Headlined ‘Disease on nine more farms’, The Times reported the epidemic announcement as just another news story: ‘The Ministry of Agriculture yesterday confirmed nine new outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. “The situation has reached epidemic proportions”, an official said.’ (3)

The Daily Mirror relegated the announcement to its back page (not a sports page in those days, but a ‘read on’ section for smaller news items) and gave it just 33 words: ‘The epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease in Shropshire “has now reached epidemic proportions”, the Agriculture Ministry said yesterday, after six new outbreaks in the Oswestry area. Nearly 3000 animals have been destroyed.’ (4)

But far from there being any discussion of cancelling horseracing events, The Times chose the same day to celebrate the arrival in the UK of ‘Stupendous the stud’, an American stallion that would be taking up duties as ‘national stud’ at Newmarket – helping to ‘safeguard the position of our industry in international thoroughbred breeding’ (5). Imagine the furore today if a foreign horse arrived to impregnate ‘our fillies’ just as foot-and-mouth became an epidemic.

For the Guardian, the news of an epidemic was a chance to have a level-headed debate about the benefits of slaughtering animals over vaccinating them – a million miles from some of today’s guilt-ridden journalists who cannot bear the sight of ‘lambs to the slaughter’: ‘The slaughtering system – known to agriculture as “stamping out” because of its thorough effectiveness – has been shown to be far cheaper than the involved and time-consuming job of vaccinating every living farm animal against the disease about three times a year. The question was thoroughly researched several years ago.’ (6)

The following day, 2 November 1967, news of the ‘worst day since foot-and-mouth was first spotted’ made it as a 44-word report on page 3 of The Times – below ‘Parents accept apology’, an item that would have been better suited to a local rag: ‘The parents of a boy who was taken to hospital last month with a broken collar-bone after a school incident accepted an apology from the master concerned’ (7).

The news fared better in the Daily Mirror, which ran a story that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s tabloids: ‘Silently, across the misty farmlands of Britain it advances, with all the remorselessness and stealth of a medieval plague….It is foot-and-mouth, the disease that strikes fear into the heart of every farmer.’ Though even this report ended with a cool discussion of the good and bad sides to farmers’ compensation:

‘Compensation is good – the full market value of the stock slaughtered. But it ignores the costs incurred – for instance, when a farmer is unable to sell fit stock because of a movement control order, or when he cannot take his rams to a flock of sheep and so misses breeding period.’ (8)

Something else happened on 2 November 1967 – there were by-elections throughout the country. Foot-and-mouth may have reached epidemic proportions and had its ‘worst day yet’, but there was no suggestion that politics should come to a standstill. If anything, commentators wanted more politics and more elections. After the Labour government suffered losses in the by-elections, a Times editorial argued that the government was ‘facing a crisis of confidence in its ability to govern’. The Times’ solution? To have a general election (9).

As foot-and-mouth worsened, there were still more important stories to report. On Monday 6 November, the Daily Mail reported that a total of 21,650 farm animals had been slaughtered – a fact overshadowed by the death of over 40 people in a train crash at Hither Green. And unlike the coverage of the train crash at Selby, Yorkshire, in February 2001, there were no attempts to link train crashes and foot-and-mouth as symptoms of a crisis-ridden Britain (10). One news story was more important than the other, and that was that.

By 7 November 1967, foot-and-mouth had got bad enough to make it on to the front pages – though still not as the lead item. The Times ran two small paragraphs at the bottom of its front page under the headline ‘Farm disease spreading – 106 cases’. But its editorial of the same day suggested that there was still no need to panic: ‘Great credit is owing to the veterinary surgeons…for the energy with which they counterattack an epidemic when it does unfortunately strike Britain’s farms.’ (11)

Two days later, on 9 November 1967, came the headline ‘Meat supply still safe’, reassuring readers that ‘there is no need for concern about the national food supplies’ (12).

In mid-November 1967 came some of the restrictions we are familiar with today, though they were largely about controlling the movement of animals rather than controlling the movement of people. There was a ban on the movement of horses between Britain and Ireland, the cancellation of two major cattle sales in Carlisle, and the postponement of a scheme to ship pedigree bulls to poor people in India. Though there were also restrictions on people flying to Australia, as the Guardian reported: ‘Fifty emigrants due to fly to Australia from areas of England affected by the outbreaks of foot-and-mouth have been told they must either go by sea or postpone their departure for three weeks’ (13). But the restrictions were reported as necessary local measures rather than symptoms of a national emergency.

Even at this stage in the spread of the disease, there was little suggestion that people should be prevented from going to the countryside. In fact, on 10 November 1967, parliament discussed new countryside legislation that would give people greater access to open parks and areas of beauty – without once mentioning foot-and-mouth. The next day, not only did The Times’ editorial on access to the countryside fail to mention foot-and-mouth – it also criticised the government for placing too many restrictions on people’s ability to go for a stroll in the country:

‘It must be hard for legislators legislating about the countryside to see the woods for the verbiage. Conservation policies, provision of amenities, access regulations, the problem of leisure and recreational facilities…These dreadful phrases, like deadening asphalt, seem infinitely remote from the things to which they are applied.’ (14)

The foot-and-mouth outbreak may have become ‘one of the worst in years’, but news and debate seemed to go on as normal – even news and debate about the countryside.

When on 13 November 1967 restrictions were placed on sporting events – most notably the cancellation of the RAC driving rally – Tom Stobo, then regional veterinary officer for Yorkshire, was still keen to reassure people: ‘Although this is a very large and very serious outbreak it must be remembered that the 50,000 or so cattle so far slaughtered on infected premises represent only a tiny fraction, perhaps a thousandth, of the livestock population of this country. I am confident that we have the manpower and machinery to bring this thing under control.’ (15)

Towards the end of November, the biggest story of the month hit the UK’s newspapers: devaluation of the pound. Foot-and-mouth stayed on pages three, four and five while devaluation dominated page one – and never the twain did meet. There was never any discussion that politics should halt until the disease was brought under control. In response to devaluation Edward Heath, then leader of the Conservative opposition, even demanded a general election, as reported in The Times: ‘Heath will demand that the government, having completely lost the confidence of the people, resign and allow the electorate to give their judgement on Labour’s performance over the past three years.’ (16)

Contrast that to today’s shirking Tory leader William Hague, who has all but demanded an end to political life until foot-and-mouth is sorted out.

On the same day that the nation was debating devaluation, a staff reporter on page four of The Times helpfully pointed out to anybody who was at all interested in foot-and-mouth that though the number of animals slaughtered had risen above 100,000 there was still no need to fret about meat supplies: ‘In a normal week, about 700,000 animals are slaughtered for food. In the epidemic so far 106,823 head of livestock have been destroyed in three-and-a-half weeks.’ (17)

Even when the boys in green were sent in on 16 November 1967 to ensure that animals were not being moved around the country illegally, there was none of today’s warlike language, as if soldiers were going to war with the countryside. The story ‘Army fights foot-and-mouth’ only made it as a tiny report on the back page of the Daily Mirror – dwarfed by the news that Miss World (Miss Peru that year, if you’re interested) had fainted during a prizegiving ceremony and that Julian Lennon, then three, wanted to be a train driver when he grew up (18).

The difference between the response to foot-and-mouth today and the response in 1967 is best illustrated by the by-election of 23 November 1967 in West Derbyshire, when farmers demanded to be able to vote – despite West Derbyshire being a part farming community affected by foot-and-mouth. As one journalist pointed out, there may have been practical problems with electioneering and the act of voting itself, but it was still politics as usual:

‘Because of the foot-and-mouth disease party loudspeaker vans and the normal car-loads of party workers will not be allowed in the rural areas….[But] although foot-and-mouth is greatly affecting the way the by-election looks and feels, it may not affect the result very much: most of the electors live in urban areas where electioneering goes on as usual.’ (19)

The next day the newspaper happily reported under the headline ‘Farmers can vote’ that ‘farmers in West Derbyshire were yesterday given permission to leave their farms today to vote in the local by-election’ (20).

Just like today, foot-and-mouth in 1967 had a devastating impact on some farming communities, thousands of animals were slaughtered, agricultural policies rethought, and compensation paid out. But unlike today, all of this was reported as straightforward news, making no impact on the other big issues of the day. The lambs might have been going to the slaughter, but life, news – and politics – went on as normal.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue
(1) See ‘The Editor’, Guardian, 30 March 2001
(2) The Times, 1 November 1967
(3) The Times, 1 November 1967
(4) Daily Mirror, 1 November 1967
(5) The Times, 1 November 1967
(6) Guardian, 1 November 1967
(7) The Times, 2 November 1967
(8) Daily Mirror, 3 November 1967
(9) The Times, 3 November 1967
(10) See A national nervous breakdown by Mick Hume
(11) The Times, 7 November 1967
(12) The Times, 9 November 1967
(13) Guardian, 11 November 1967
(14) The Times, 11 November 1967
(15) The Times, 13 November 1967
(16) The Times, 20 November 1967
(17) The Times, 20 November 1967
(18) Daily Mirror, 17 November 1967
(19) The Times, 22 November 1967
(20) The Times, 23 November 1967

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