Isn't it wonderful to be born beautiful and to be in the right
place at the right time, even if you're as ugly as sin? I refer, of
course, to Phoenix, the white calf that (along with Porky, the
Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, in which Brigitte Bardot took a useful
interest), were spared the foot-and-mouth cull. These born survivors are
testimony to the dumbing down of British government and the impact of
spin on policy. One is the inevitable consequence of the other. Phoenix
and Porky illustrate just what can happen when policy is dictated by
The facts are fairly clear. Phoenix was found down among the dead cattle
of Devon to have somehow escaped preventative slaughter. Her appealing
picture rapidly became a dangerous national symbol for the Government
among voters unhappy about the wholesale killing of healthy animals.
Number 10, alerted to tabloid outrage, promptly introduced a change of
cull policy and announced to the world via TV's News at Ten that kind,
cuddly Tony Blair, the prime minister Who Always Listens, had saved
Phoenix. This is certainly the message we got from the Daily Mirror,
whose propaganda resources were rapidly organised. But if cute Phoenix
could be preserved, why not Porky, who does not rate highly on the
pulchritude scale? So Porky lives on, too.
Of course, we were later told that selective culling was nothing new. If
so, why did our hapless and sidelined agriculture minister, Nick Brown,
not announce it to Parliament before Phoenix became the first-known
The answer, I suspect, is that he was as much in the dark about the
change of policy as anybody else outside Number 10 until it occurred.
Spin-doctors are no respecters of persons. If the Government's or the
Prime Minister's image needs massaging, ministers can eat humiliation
It is quite possible that many PROs will be beside themselves with
admiration at this manifestation of Number 10 press secretary Alastair
Campbell's power and manipulative skills. After all, they will say, he
pre-empted a bad press for the Government and converted it (in some
quarters) into praise for his leader's compassion. It just shows you,
they will say, what a PRO in the Cabinet Room - and, by extension, the
board room - can do, given the opportunity.
Indeed, it does. But it also shows you what a narrow, blinkered
pre-occupation with headlines can achieve, too. Phoenix and Porky
photogenically confirm within weeks of a general election what drives
this Government. It is not policy, not principle, not consistency, not
fairness, certainly not constitutional propriety, not even the
eradication of disease. It is an obsession with short-term advantage,
driven by a cynical contempt for the intelligence of ordinary folk.
Phoenix and Porky have not suffered and survived in vain.