THERE’S a documentary coming out later this year. Well, it claims to be a documentary but it will really be more of a diatribe. It’s called 'Eating Our Way to Extinction' and you can probably guess what its about. It an anti-meat, anti-fish, anti-corporate, anti-pretty much anything to do with ordinary food production film, as far as we can tell.
I say, ‘as far as we can tell’ because we don’t actually know quite what wild claims the film will make. The focus is likely to be on the beef producers of the Amazon and the poultry farmers of North America and we do know Scottish salmon farming will feature in it too.
Yet, despite being in production for several years, despite using drones to capture unauthorised footage from above our farms and using under-water cameras to film around our pens, we have no idea what allegations will be made. That is because the producers have not shared those with us nor have they invited us to participate properly in the film.
They refused to give us the chance to speak to camera, instead, after two years of filming and after test screenings had already taken place, they at last offered us the opportunity to provide a simple statement which they will no doubt post on screen for a few seconds over pictures of dead fish. That’s it. One statement to challenge two years of unauthorised filming about who knows what.
This is not journalism. It is activism dressed up as reportage and in the past, such a film would never had got an airing. Anywhere.
That is because, in the past, film-makers had to be balanced, they had to have integrity and they had to abide by journalistic ethics. That was the price they paid to get an airing on the mainstream media.
Now, though, the slow decline in the mainstream media has left a vacuum activists are more than happy to fill. That, combined with a plethora of new streaming services and channels desperate for material has given film-makers like these all the encouragement they need.
One of the implications of the Covid-19 crisis is that it will hasten the demise of the traditional media. As someone who worked for the mainstream media for 30 years, that is something I profoundly regret.
The traditional media has never been perfect, anything but. But at least it was journalism. For the most part, reporters got both sides to every story, even if they sensationalised it in the way that suited them best. Now, there are no such checks and balances and 'Eating Our Way to Extinction' is likely to be just the latest in an increasingly long line of activist dogma presented as journalism.
I’d like to tell you where it will be shown but I can’t because I suspect even the producers don’t know yet. They will punt it around the streaming services until they find a taker and hope it goes around and around until every vegan activist in the world has seen it.
This will be the ‘new normal’ – or at least a part of it and we should expect more of this in the months and years to come. So what should we do?
First, we have to accept that this sort of activist journalism is a reflection in the rise of food activism more generally. Consider the activists who go into restaurants and demand that the owner withdraws this food or that ingredient from their menu, claiming it has been produced unethically or has a trail of far too many food miles smoking behind it.
This happens. I spent a couple of hours earlier this year trying to persuade an anxious Edinburgh restauranteur to keep salmon on her menu after she had been pressured by activist diners to drop it.
These people are not intrinsically wrong in trying to do this. It is their right and this is the way things are now. But, and this is crucial, it is totally out of order for anybody to take such a stand if they don’t have the facts.
In the case of that Edinburgh restauranteur, it was clear the critics who complained about salmon on the menu hadn’t a clue about the way salmon is grown in Scotland or the excellent environmental record we have to tell.
It’s the same with the makers of 'Eating Our Way to Extinction'. What I mind is not that they are making a film about meat production, what I mind is that they never actually set out to find out what was really going on. They were never going to seek a balancing view from our sector because they never wanted one. Their minds were closed from the beginning and they remain closed now.
There are so many more sources of information out there now than there ever were before but that doesn’t mean people are any more informed than they used to be. What we need to do is make sure the right information is out there so that reasonable people get access to it and can make up their own minds.
In our response to the makers of the Extinction film, we pointed out how disappointed we were with their refusal to allow even a semblance of balance. Had they asked, we would have been delighted to host the producers at a salmon farm. That way, they wouldn’t have needed the pretence of making out they were secretly filming at some illicit location.
Above all, we need to be reasonable, rational, open and honest. That won’t win back the dyed-in-the-wool activists who have already closed their minds, but it might just make others pause for thought.
There used to be a mantra in politics which held that a positive campaign will beat a negative one every time. I don’t know whether that is strictly true, every single time, but I do believe positivity, openness and factual accuracy will win out in the end.
It had better do: it’s all we’ve got.
The post by the SSPO's Director of Strategic Engagement Hamish Macdonell first appeared in June's edition of Fish Farmer magazine.