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The Independent Culture
The obvious story in the Panorama report (BBC1) on the origins of the beef crisis was one of serial equivocation, the Government and the Ministry of Agriculture repeatedly offering up a set of famous last words, assurances that now look like a fatal sort of perjury. The less obvious story was one of the contamination of political language by a compulsion with categorical fact. "So, you are saying there is no conceivable risk from what is now in the food chain? That is the position?" pressed David Dimbleby in 1994, checkmating Stephen Dorrell into a categorical statement that could be used against him later. This wasn't actually an accurate paraphrase of what he had said - the word "conceivable" having been used by Dorrell about the theoretical danger from certain body parts, not about any overall risk. But, his mind on reassurance rather than verbal exactitude, Dorrell let the gloss pass. Which means that two years later, Panorama can force him through the weary process of defending a remark that had been placed in his mouth by David Dimbleby in the first place, a task that was consistent neither with dignity nor common sense. "When you say there is `no conceivable risk' that is not the same as saying it was risk-free?" asked the reporter incredulously. "No," replied Dorrell, looking decidedly irritated at being obliged to utter such nonsense.

He's a politician, and he should know better than to allow interviewers to rephrase his statements, but the scene made you wonder whether the adversarial culture of political reporting might not have contributed to this crisis too - the reflex instinct to impale politicians on their own statements and the skills by which those statements are honed until they are sharp enough to do the job. It is now relatively easy for Panorama to represent the Government's handling of the crisis as penny-pinching and recklessly complacent (easy because there is a large element of truth to it). But at least part of that appetite for impossible certainties which the politicians were feeding has been created by journalists themselves.

When the crisis finally broke, with its attendant hysteria and confusion, it wasn't because Stephen Dorrell went into the House of Commons and shrieked "Run for the hills! - the mad cows are coming". It was because he conceded to a miniscule crack in the narrative of reassurance which was then prised open by the press. Had he, or the Government's Chief Veterinary Officer, Keith Meldrum (here presented as chief purser on the Titanic, telling passengers to go back to their cabins and get some sleep), made an equally candid statement of risk eight years earlier, it would almost certainly have been seized on by journalists as being as interested in scoring a hit as in educating their audience about probability and risk. In such a climate, sensible remarks can be very diff- icult to make: it's all or nothing, an either/or culture which views uncertainty as pathological.

This isn't to exculpate the Government - it was saying "There is no risk" when it should have been saying "We will take no risks". As a result, even those commercial interests which it placed above the health of its citizens have been grievously, perhaps permanently, damaged. Even measured against its own stated aims, it has been proved incompetent and it is hardly surprising that Panorama should take some pleasure in the tone of chortling condescension with which various spokesmen dismissed the possibility of BSE posing a threat to humans.

But the truth is that we still don't know for sure whether we are facing a catastrophe or an embarrassment, whether the Government's dilatory reactions simply postponed an awkward industrial problem, or condemned some of its citizens to an awful disintegration. That Panorama should be more preoccupied with making the Government eat its words ("No pudding till you've finished Mr Dorrell") than with exploring where exactly we go next, is at least part of the explanation of how we got here.

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