Rural lobby seeks urban attention

As a nationwide campaign to alleviate rural poverty gets under way, Sarah Robertson asks countryside representatives how they are highlighting their cause in the face of a seemingly apathetic national media

If your only window into British rural life is the national press or Midsomer Murders, your view might be informed by affluent, chocolate-box images of the village idyll.

According to the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), this is a gross misconception – and one that it is desperate to correct.

Rural communities are suffering from diminishing wages, poor transport links and fewer local services and jobs. Accompanying this, says the commission, are increasingly unaffordable house prices.

The CRC, currently operating under the auspices of the Countryside Agency, will become independent in October, signalling a fresh attempt to champion rural issues and to improve New Labour's relationship with the countryside.

Last week the commission brought in Eloqui PR to aid its quest, with plans to position chairman Stuart Burgess as a 'rural tsar' and to make government policy 'rural-proof' – the CRC's catchphrase for legislation that carefully considers rural communities. (PRWeek, 17 March)

Poverty gap widens
Lobby group the Local Government Association argues that the chasm between rich and poor in the countryside is widening and that there has never been a more important time to champion rural issues.

'The media have a hazy idea of what country life is like,' says National Farmers' Union spokesman Ian Johnson. 'On the rare occasion that the national media cover rural issues, they look for stereotypes. For example, they want farmers who are victims or villains, ranters or whingers.'

Countryside Alliance head of media Tim Bonner concurs: 'They either paint a picture of a simple farmer chewing barley or of rich landowners in Range Rovers.'

In addition, coverage of emotive public issues such as fox hunting and foot-and-mouth have provided a distraction from ongoing rural crises, such as the shortage of affordable housing – fuelled in no small part by the surge in second-home ownership.

'Urban people view the countryside as a playground rather than a working community – somewhere they used to go on holiday with their parents before they went to Ibiza,' says Country Life editor-in-chief Mark Hedges. He adds that the wider public fail to hear about, or fully grasp, farming issues.

Part of the reason for the ghettoisation of rural issues – and the limitation of in-depth coverage to trade press – is the disappearance of national newspapers' agriculture correspondents in favour of environment reporters.

'The press share the views of the Government, which is that farming and agriculture are an environmental issue, not an industrial one. Farming comes within the remit of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, not the Department for Trade and Industry,' says Johnson.

The most important ongoing affairs for rural people lack the immediacy and contentiousness of more reported topics such as immigration, argues the Countryside Alliance, probably the most vociferous rural pressure group.

Country Living editor Susy Smith says: 'People will only engage with things that directly affect them. However, the commission could capitalise on this by explaining the issues of interest to urban people, such as the disappearance of the countryside.' However, The Daily Telegraph environment editor Charles Clover argues that the changing nature of media coverage simply mirrors the changing nature of country life.

'Agriculture makes up a only small proportion of the rural economy, which is why farming gets less coverage,' he says. 'The media are receptive to rural issues but have to prioritise. The affordable-housing shortage, for example, is more prevalent in urban areas, so rural communities' housing shortage will be further down the agenda.'

However, the NFU claims that the increasing focus from both government and media on environmental concerns – at the expense of agricultural ones – is down to the power of the green lobby, which has forced groups such as the NFU to boost their PR.

The NFU now proactively promotes farmers' conservation work and engages with groups such as the Environment Agency to 'persuade it that we are not tearing down hedgerows and poisoning streams'. However, the resulting coverage suggests there is more to be done.

Government action
Defra's own attempts to champion rural causes include the creation of an Affordable Rural Housing Commission and the England Rural Development Programme.

The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, meanwhile, proposes to create a body dedicated to minimising rural 'economic disadvantage and social exclusion'.

But the Government's efforts to mend its acrimonious relationship with rural Britain are viewed with cynicism by some. Jonathan Young, editor of The Field, says: 'If the Government can ignore 400,000 people demonstrating against the hunting ban, people are going to be sceptical about its aims to champion rural [causes].'

Because the national media are  largely located in London, an urban bias is somewhat inevitable. Raising the profile of rural issues, and getting countryside communities to buy into its agenda, will be major communication challenges for the CRC.

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