Dirty Old River

It’s hardly breaking news that environmental reporting is something of a lost art in the mainstream media. The print press visits this important subject far less often than Love Island and tends to come back with a half-finished story. The wider reporting diaspora, which consists of radio, television and online media is no less guilty. They all may or may not disseminate important stories consistently, nor dig particularly deeply into issues that are more complex than they first appear. It’s left to those of us who are already engaged with environmental narratives to, as it were, ‘fill in the blanks for ourselves’.

A good example is today’s item from BBC online about farming subsidies in England (*), which is fairly informative, but is based on a few bullet points issued by the government and the responses of various stakeholders. (Elms: England Green Farming Subsidies Detail Unveiled. The bare bones of the three main payment schemes incorporate buzzwords such as ‘Incentive’, ‘Recovery’ and ‘Stewardship’, with a focus on “soil health, rewilding projects, and action to support climate change, adaptation, and help nature”. Unsurprisingly, this new investment in nature restoration, preservation and, to a lesser extent, protection has been ‘broadly welcomed’ by stakeholders.

Of course, there have been quibbles such as the curmudgeonly response from The Soil Association’s head of farming policy who described the measures as, “tinkering around the edges”. The most diverting comment, however, came from Martin Lines of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, who observed, “individual actions on their own won’t achieve our climate and nature targets. There remains the need for join-up between actions to avoid a piecemeal approach.”

To my mind, it is the role of an empowered nature conservancy to do the joining up and co-ordinate a strategy for achieving the somewhat sketchy aims of these schemes. We once had such an agency, but it has long since been eviscerated and re-branded many times over and, by comparison, is now little more than a news portal. If it has any sort of role then this hasn’t been reported or, worse, its existence has gone unnoticed and, as a result, an important part of the story has been omitted.

Nor do I expect the media to revisit this story; unless it involves scandal, waste, failure, or fraud. We need progress reports from the front line of nature preservation and environmental protection, not occasional footnotes filed under ‘any other matters’. Independent environmental online magazines and bloggers do a good job of filling in the gaps in mainstream reporting, but it shouldn’t be necessary to search the nether regions of Google in order to be updated and appraised of things that are of national and international importance.

It’s not just about plugging holes in our knowledge. Too many urgent stories on mainstream news sites are ‘yellow stickered’ with the legend “this article is more than three years old”. The issues may be no less pressing, but the news value of such stories too often appears to have fallen off a cliff. I have an example from The Guardian of an excellent piece by Sandra Laville who reported, “Targets to clean up the majority of England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters suffering from a cocktail of agricultural and sewage pollution have been pushed back from 2027 to 2063.”

Her second paragraph is even more damning – if you’ll pardon the unintentional pun. She goes on to say, “Not one English waterway, including rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters is in good ecological and chemical health at present, with pollution from water treatment plants and agriculture the key sources of the damage.” The main indictment in the article is that the government isn’t serious about tackling river pollution; has no intention of allocating proportionate funding, and doesn’t recognise that it is an urgent problem. Laville’s piece is now more than a month old, but it hasn’t been pursued by other newspapers, nor followed up by the likes of the BBC and ITV. It certainly hasn’t provoked the outrage that it demanded.

What is needed in such circumstances, is serial reporting on river pollution and the elevation of environmental influencers who can speak truth to power and make them listen. So far, only the Guardian has chosen to elaborate on the pollution of our waters with a steady stream of reporting from that particular front. Yet, even they haven’t drilled down to the link between the historic and deliberate defunding of environmental protections and the current complacency and inaction we see today.

The state of England’s rivers is clearly a national disgrace, but that isn’t anything particularly new. I’ve written extensively about the Victorian naturalist and fisheries inspector, Frank Buckland, who in the 1870s pushed for measures to halt the discharge of industrial pollutants into Britain’s waterways. Through his lectures and writing, he foreshadowed Greta Thunberg’s tub-thumping phrase “We are burning down our own house” with, “we are poisoning our own larder”.

One of the more appalling things about river pollution levels in the 21st Century is the fact that Buckland created a pushback against the same thing and was relatively successful. Mass die-offs of fish became rarer and salmon returned to their old spawning grounds where, in previous years, they had failed. In the light of recent reporting, it would appear that his was a pyrrhic victory. Yet it’s Buckland’s status as an authority figure, as well as the force of his considerable personality, that underscores my earlier point about agency. Frank Buckland was first a Commissioner attached to the nation’s freshwater fishery, and then Her Majesty’s Inspector of Fishes. He wrote many reports and ultimately answered to the Home Secretary. In short, truth had a direct line to power and he was difficult to ignore.

In the absence of such privileged access, we can only look to the power of public opinion to challenge current perceptions of competence. Moreover, the apparatus for protecting the environment, and rivers in particular, is lacking. The agencies that are charged with these responsibilities clearly lack teeth, but the press can inflict a painful bite where it hurts. My concern is that they let go of a pressing environmental story too easily and forget to return to it later on. This is why ministers and officials feel comfortable about rolling out inadequate measures, or else kicking the can down the road – a favourite tactic of every conceited government that doesn’t care much about anything, much less the state of that dirty old river that rolls right by their front door.

Michael Stephen Clark

(*) Agriculture is a devolved responsibility and each nation in the UK is devising and administering its own environmental subsidy scheme.