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February 16th 2021

If truth is the first casualty of war then it's undoubtedly the case that impartiality takes a fair few body blows too - and not just during war.

Just consider what has happened throughout this pandemic.

As everyone who farms salmon knows, its impossible to get a feel for what really goes on out at sea unless you've been there and seen it.

This is doubly true for those who report on our sector.

One of the most important tools that we have in trying to secure balanced coverage is to get journalists out to the farms to see for themselves.

But, for the last nine months, this has been impossible.

No-one but essential staff have been allowed. All press visits have stopped. All media access has been shut off.

Some in the sector might see this as a good thing: after all, out of sight, out of mind and all that. If we aren't drawing attention to ourselves, then surely they have nothing to write about.

Well, no: that's not how it has worked out.

What happens to journalists stuck behind their desks is that they rely on second-hand - sometimes third-hand - accounts and tired old clippings to inform their pieces (I should know, I was in that position myself often enough).

This means that the same old tropes keep going round and round with no fresh, first-hand experience to challenge them.

READ MORE: Why activist film-making should not be mistaken for journalism

Right in the middle of the pandemic, the SSPO was involved in lengthy and, at first, very constructive, talks with BBC producers.

The SSPO had approached the BBC with the aim of getting a positive piece on air about 50 years of salmon farming in Scotland.

Initially, the producers were enthusiastic, offering to do a lengthy feature on one episode of a prominent countryside show chronicling the success of salmon and another episode on the challenges the sector faces.

But as discussions continued, it became clear that the positive piece was shrinking and the negative piece was gaining ground.

In the end, the BBC proposed lumping it all in together in a single episode, the short positive piece running at the start and the negative piece closing the programme, leaving viewers with a distinctly bad taste in their mouths - unsurprisingly the whole enterprise collapsed.

There has always been a tendency in the media to favour the negative over the positive but the pandemic seems to have exacerbated this trend.

One of the reasons for this is the new footage broadcasters have, readily supplied by our critics.

The activists have no qualms about putting the health and welfare of our fish and our employees in danger by making unauthorised visits to farms to film.

This means that media organisations get given footage, often of dubious provenance, but - for the moment at least - we are not able to invite those same broadcasters on to our farms to find out what it really going on.

Yet it was all supposed to be so different.

2020 was due to be the year we launched our Open Farm Initiative when we would open up farms in every farming area of Scotland.

Although the aim was to get those in the local communities to come out to the farms and see what really goes on, there was a clear plan to get decision-makers, opinion formers and journalists out to the farms too.

It is somewhat ironic that the year that we had earmarked to champion openness and transparency was the year when everything had to be shut down for all but the most essential of visits.

But the intention remains but this is crucial to what we do as a sector going forward.

If we accept that much of the negative reporting of our sector comes from ignorance, then the way to overturn that is to be open, to invite as many people as possible to see what we do and how we do it.

It has been immensely frustrating that we haven't been able to do that.

READ MORE: Irresponsible Activism, Consent and Public Support

Earlier this year, the former BBC Today programme editor Sarah Sands wrote a highly critical piece about salmon farming in the Mail on Sunday.

On the back of that, the SSPO got in contact and offered to take Ms Sands to a farm to see for herself - when the restrictions are lifted.

Will that in itself stop Ms Sands from being critical? Probably not. But would it lead to more balance in her pieces? Almost certainly.

Yet no-one knows when we can make good on that offer: everything is frustratingly on hold until life gets back to some semblance of normality.

But there is an overriding theme here: if we are proud of what we do, and I think everyone in the sector is, then we should shout about it. We should welcome everybody to see what we do and be as open and transparent as we possibly can be.

That was the message in our Sustainability Charter, which has just been launched.

It even talked about the possibility of a salmon centre visitor experience, perhaps starting on a road that has brought so much success for whisky.

This is where we need to be: being open, welcoming, forthcoming and transparent.

If we want to see balance in those newspaper articles and broadcast pieces, then we have to get all those journalists to farms, hatcheries, processing plants and harvest stations.

For almost a full year, we have been shut down. Ideas have become entrenched with nothing to challenge them, tired old arguments have been re-heated and claims have been repeated with little to question them.

This will change and we should make sure that, when we finally emerge, blinking, into the post-Covid world, we make up for this lost time.

Those twin themes of openness and transparency are so important, they can't be allowed to grow dusty, unused and uncared for, in a corner somewhere.

If we embrace them properly, they will, in turn, protect and nurture the concept of impartiality. It is vital that they do: the future of our sector might well depend on it.

This blog post by Hamish Macdonell, the SSPO's Director of Strategic Engagement first appeared in the December 2020 edition of Fish Farmer magazine.