How to stay ahead of the pack

In the west of England, fox-hunting is a topic that fiercely divides communities. Terry Manners, the editor of the Western Daily Press, warily treads a neutral line to keep the hounds off his tail
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The Independent Online

From the moment I walked across the newsroom of the Western Daily Press for the first time two years ago, I knew in my heart that the most sensitive and difficult content issue to be faced was the Hunt.

For a very long time, the newspaper had trodden a neutral line. It was, I quickly discovered, such a passionate subject that every line of copy had to be carefully considered, whether it appeared in a news or features page, in the letters column or even in our Saturday magazine.

I realised that we had to stay steadfastly neutral. There was no alternative, otherwise protagonists on one side or another might stop buying the paper - or worse, persuade others to go against us. So, it has been a hard, unforgiving exercise. For the Daily Press circulates throughout the heart of the West of England countryside... home to the Hunts of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset... the Beauforts, the Berkeleys and many more.

Communities in some of the towns and villages are bonded in one way or another to horses and hounds... making or supplying saddles, foodstuffs and boots. Or running stables and kennels. Many people have taken over this cottage industry tradition from fathers and grandfathers and some can date their businesses back to Henry V.

It is not surprising therefore that we have a large number of pro-hunt supporters in our readership. And yet very many of the anti-hunt letters we receive come from people stressing they, too, are born and bred countryfolk dating back generations.

That is why the Daily Press must sit on the fence and tap dance its way across the kennel sand. But we can never, and will never, ignore the argument. For the hunting debate is as much a way of life in the West as the hunt itself.

The West was split over the recent House of Commons vote to ban hunting throughout Britain. The next day and for the rest of the week, hunt supporters wrote to us vowing to fight the ban across the woodlands and meadows of our region. Meanwhile, anti-hunt protesters and many families in towns and villages celebrated the historic parliamentary move with parties. Many of our MPs and civic leaders were at war over the issue. Even our own newsroom was split.

When feelings are running so high, a headline, an intro or even a picture caption can be misinterpreted by a reader with strongly-held views. Some people measure with a ruler the length of copy space given to the Hunt or against the Hunt, calling for their views to be expressed for the same eight inches of text the next day - or they will never buy us again.

When editors cry, they have to cry behind closed doors and believe me, all of us secretly cry sometimes. If only we could send our own private thoughts back to some of the awful, abusive letters sent to us through the mail.

Perhaps it is a sad reflection that there are more letters to the newspaper about the hunt than there are about cruelty to children, the homeless, the desperate crisis facing care homes for the elderly or people left to die on hospital trolleys.

Our position at the Daily Press then, is tested to the limit on the hunt. I would be amazed if even this neutral piece today, is not followed up by letters of complaint from one side or the other.

Our stance is that we will listen to all arguments and report on them fairly. We have accepted invitations to visit huntspeople at work and we have aired their deeply held view that what they do is provide a service to farmers and the countryside. We accept that they feel right is on their side and that it is less cruel to hunt and kill the fox, who still has a chance to get away, than to shoot it. It is their opinion - and they are perfectly entitled to hold it. But so, too, are the many people who write to us criticising hunting and everything to do with it. If all the photographs of alleged cruelty to stags or foxes are purely stunts, as some of the hunting fraternity say, then a lot of people are spending a lot of time mocking them up.

As editor I take the view that if I am annoying either side in equal measure, if I am representing either side in equal measure, then I am producing newspapers in the finest British tradition.