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Never say die

April 25, 2002 The Guardian (London) by John Vidal
This time last year Britain was suffering a miserably wet, uncertain, emotional spring. Foot and mouth disease had been on the front pages for 10 solid weeks and nothing, it seemed, could shake it off. The country was in limbo. The election, known to have been planned for May 7, had been postponed. Much of the land had been closed to walkers, most countryside events had been cancelled and a real anger was mounting that the pyres were still burning, the piles of carcasses were still high and the government seemed to be only partly in control. The number of daily cases was declining, but almost two million animals had already been killed. There was no end in sight and Downing Street was being swept up in a riptide of adverse public opinion and unremitting bad news which it could do nothing about. Tony Blair was said to be rattled.

And then, lo, completely off the radar of politicians but with impeccable timing on Good Friday, April 13, a pure white Charolais calf was born at the tiny 50-acre Clarence farm near Axminster in Devon. Too small to earn anyone a full-time living, the farm was being run as a part-time cattle and sheep breeding centre by digger driver Philip Board and his teacher wife Michaela. Any joy the couple may have had at the calf's birth was shortlived. The next day a neighbouring farm was found to have foot and mouth and, under the government's draconian "contiguous culling" policy, which demanded that any animals on farms neighbouring those where foot and mouth had been discovered were automat ically to be killed, Mr and Mrs Board's 70 sheep and cattle were condemned. On Tuesday April 17 the slaughtermen arrived, herded them inside the barn, slammed the doors and lethally injected the lot. The Boards could not watch.

But the slaughtermen had somehow missed the calf, or administered a dose which only put her in a coma. Six days later, on Monday April 23, when more ministry men came to disinfect the bodies, they opened the barn doors to be met with the smell of putrefying flesh and a small white animal with an angelic face coming towards them, "blinking in the light and mooing softly".

Events unfolded quickly. The disinfecting team told the Boards, and Michaela phoned the Exeter office of the agriculture ministry (Maff) and told them to come and kill the calf immediately; but when they didn't arrive she was angry and phoned the Express and Echo newspaper in Exeter. That evening, the calf, which had been hurriedly named Phoenix (the name Lucky was rejected), had her heart-rending picture on the front page of the evening paper.

But what started as a cuddly animal story, a little light relief from the West Country killing fields, was about to blow up into a major row between senior members of the government and the media, drawing in cabinet ministers, the chief scientist, parliament, the chief vet and the prime minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell. Apart from being an object lesson in how news is "made" and managed, it is emblematic of the pressure on the government at the time and the way policy can be made and unmade. It is a tale that could have come straight out of Drop the Dead Donkey or Yes, Prime Minister.

Phoenix was an instant star in Devon and the phone calls started coming. That evening her picture was sold to the Daily Mail in London, which put it on page seven, but even before the paper was on the streets, freelance photographers and TVhad picked up the story and were phoning the Boards. "GMTV phoned at 3.30am. By 7am Sky TV and dozens of photographers were camped in the lane beyond our bungalow. It was like Piccadilly Circus," says Michaela.

By the end of Tuesday April 24, half of Britain knew about Phoenix. The Mirror leapt in with a campaign to "Save Phoenix from the Ashes"; animal rights groups started shouting; and Carla Lane chimed in. A senior West Country official of the National Farmers' Union (NFU) said that Phoenix's death "would make King Herod look like a humanitarian" and the MP and animal lover Tony Banks said that Maff officials were "Daleks". Phoenix was by now in every broadcast and in most papers, and, says a spokeswoman at No 10, Downing Street was aware of the calf.

The next morning, Wednesday April 25, slaughtermen returned to Clarence farm, this time with a policeman and a vet. But the Boards had by now been phoned by Bristol solicitor Elaine Adie, who was working for other farmers trying to save their animals. "She told us exactly what to say," says Michaela. The couple argued with the officials for two hours, inviting them to take blood tests to see if Phoenix was healthy. On their solicitor's instructions, they told the ministry that they would need an injunction to kill Phoenix. This enraged the local Maff office. "Phoenix has to die. This stand will not alter what we have to do," fumed one officer.

Meanwhile, that morning in London, the government news machine was getting into gear. "It was a frantic time," says one source in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the former Maff). "The disease was declining, but the recriminations and nastiness about foot and mouth were all coming out. The allegations were kicking in. The papers were saying that Porton Down was responsible, then that foot and mouth was spread by birds and deers. It was open season."

That Wednesday morning Phoenix was on the front pages of not only the tabloids, but also the Times and the Telegraph. Other foot and mouth stories were high up the news agenda. Farmers were reported to be close to open revolt in the Scottish borders, Maff's policies were being declared a "national disgrace" by businessmen, and the tourist industry was estimating that its loss of business would be more than pounds 1bn. Adding to the pressure on Downing Street and Maff were serious questions about the legality of the contiguous culling policy. More than five court cases were pending. Meanwhile, all newspapers reported that three more men had possibly caught the human version of foot and mouth disease.

For the man at the heart of the crisis, the agriculture minister Nick Brown, not much of this was important. Brown says he remembers that Wednesday April 25 well: he got up at 5.30am to fly to Luxembourg, to address the European council of ministers about what Britain was doing about foot and mouth, and only glanced at the headlines about Phoenix and ignored them. "Poor old Phoenix was not at the front of my mind," he says. "Indeed, its early foray into the public consciousness quite passed me by. I assumed it was just the latest human-interest story. We'd already had Lucky the lamb and Misty the goat. I thought no more about it."

By mid-April, Brown had a far lower profile than at the start of the crisis. Blair was known to be angry that he had not been able to persuade farming leaders to accept vaccination, which at one point he backed, and was believed to be coming round to the idea that Maff needed total reform. Downing Street, rather than Maff now briefed political correspondents rather than the specialist reporters who had been covering the story so far.

But Brown would have seen the piece in the Times that morning which, coming from the heart of government, talked of Blair's displeasure with him, and accurately predicted not only his own downfall but the complete break-up of Maff. Within hours he had been telephoned in Luxembourg by Jonathan Powell, head of the Downing Street staff, who, it is believed, denied the story and apologised to Brown.

"I came back from Luxembourg and went straight to the ministry of agriculture offices, where I was given situation reports," says Brown. "Then, in the early evening, about 5pm, I went into a long, three-hour meeting at the Maff offices with the chief vet, Jim Scudamore, the chief scientist, Professor King, and their teams. The discussion was about the culling policy and whether exceptions to it could be made. We had always wanted to reduce the number of animals killed."

Brown says the meeting was a "continuation" of high-level talks that had taken place the previous Friday with the chief vet and the chief scientist, and that Downing Street would have been well aware that the culling policy was being discussed. "Most scientists were moving towards the opinion that culling healthy cows was no longer necessary because the worst was over," he says. "There were always nuances between the different groups, and I told them (at the 5pm meeting) to come to a common view. The outcome was that the discretion to cull given to decision makers (ie local Maff offices and vets) was widened. I was very pleased. There was a logic to it. We were past the worst. It was sensible." The meeting dragged on until after 8pm.

Brown then went straight to a meeting with the NFU president, Ben Gill, and other farmers. "I remember it because I had kept them waiting. Jim Scudamore stayed on. I told them about the proposed relaxation in the culling rules, and they understood the differing needs to cull cattle and sheep." The meeting, he says, "did not finish until about 10pm".

"At this point, having been up since the crack of dawn, I felt I had done my bit. I went to the pub, had a pint with Ben Gill and ended a long, long day," says Brown. At this point, probably 10.30pm, he and Gill were two of the only people in the country who did not know that Phoenix had been reprieved. For while Brown had been in his back-to-back meetings, Downing Street had been at work. The Daily Express says that the political staff "were given a steer by a senior Downing Street source before 6.30pm", to the effect that Phoenix was to be reprieved and that the culling policy had been changed. The paper duly put the story on page two, and in later editions on page one.

The BBC led its 10pm news with Phoenix, but no one can recall the exact timing of events. However, the head of newsgathering says they would have been given "at least two hours' notice" for Ben Brown to do the piece. The Press Association ran a snap story at 9.49pm. Meanwhile, the political staff of other papers say they had been briefed by No 10 and hurriedly substituted their first-edition stories, which were headlined "Phoenix expected to live one more day", "If Phoenix dies her death will haunt PM" and "Phoenix fights on".

"The clear implication (from Downing Street)," says one journalist who has asked not to be named, "was that that there would be a reprieve for all animals on neighbouring farms where there was no evidence of infection and that there would be a relaxation or scaling-down of the cull."

The next day, Thursday, Downing Street would have been ecstatic with the first good news about foot and mouth in months. "PM gives life to calf" (Star), "Phoenix shows Blair listens" (Mirror). "Phoenix reprieved" (Express), shouted the front pages. The Daily Mail, Times, Telegraph and Guardian all reported on their front pages that there had been a "major" change in policy.

"Downing Street had turned potentially the biggest public-relations disaster of the whole foot and mouth epidemic so far into a pre-election publicity coup for the government," wrote the Telegraph. The government was portrayed as compassionate, in touch with popular opinion and drawing a line under the horrendous killings of the past three months.

But by 9am the next morning the story was backfiring and accusations were flying that the policy had been made on the hoof by No 10's press officers and by politicians, not scientists. Brown, the media discovered, had not been told; nor had the chief scientist, the chief vet, the ministry or local Maff offices. MPs were angry because any change of policy should have been announced to parliament first and not on the 10pm news, and the Conservatives were making hay. One reporter who spoke to Brown that morning described him as "furious". Brown's staff were clearly rattled and everyone was back-pedalling fast.

But the new government line was confusing. First, Maff officials told reporters that Phoenix had been saved "the previous morning" after a decision "by local Maff officials and vets on the ground". This was unlikely because they had been trying to kill Phoenix all the previous day.

No 10 stepped in. At the morning's lobby briefing, Godric Smith, Alastair Campbell's deputy at No 10, told journalists that the announcement had been "not a change in policy but a refinement". "The idea that (the decision) was taken by politicians or press officers is far-fetched . . . this was not a decision taken by politicians," he insisted. Indeed, the official record of the briefing states clearly that the prime minister's spokesman said: "The final decision to widen the discretion had been taken yesterday following meetings between Mr Brown, Professor King and Mr Scudamore, followed by a meeting with Mr Brown and the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon."

The only trouble is that according to Brown in two interviews last week, he did not go to Downing Street and he certainly did not meet Blair or talk to him that afternoon. "I spent the whole afternoon in the Maff offices," says Brown.

And this week No 10 refined the story again: "The final decision was taken on the Wednesday morning, following meetings that morning with Nick Brown, Jim Scudamore, Professor King and others." But Brown was at this time in Luxembourg.

By now the situation was becoming farcical, as it also became clear that the "major change of policy" indicated by No 10 the night before was not a change in policy at all, and that not one extra animal might be spared. Moreover, No 10 had neglected to tell journalists that the policy now only applied to cattle.

It was left to Brown to try to explain to a sceptical and confused House of Commons what it meant: "These refinements will not lead to changes in the policy of culling of pigs and sheep on contiguous premises. We will continue to kill all animals which are dangerous contacts. That will include animals on a significant number of neighbouring farms and beyond." On Radio 4's PM programme later that afternoon, asked who announced the shift, Brown said: "You say they (No 10) announced it. I don't know whether it is true or not."

But the reality, of course, was that Phoenix had changed nothing at all. The government's scientific advisers had indeed been discussing culling policy, as Downing Street and Maff had insisted, but farmers had theoretically always been able to save their herds if they were able to put up a convincing argument that they had not been at risk of infection.

If anything, the fact that the contiguous cull was being found to be legally questionable, and that every time it was challenged in the courts the government gave way, may have played a greater part in the reprieve of Phoenix than the science. Certainly the culling did not stop, and it is unlikely that many animals were saved by the shift in policy. Between Phoenix's reprieve and the official end of the disease, almost four million more animals were killed.

Brown is now the minister of state for work. It's a quieter life, he says. He remains absolutely loyal to Blair and the Cabinet Office: "Alastair Campbell and I both knew that the policy was going to change," he says. "He would have seen the advice going to me so he would have known what was under consideration. What he did was perfectly proper when he told the press. It just so happened that the two things coincided. Frankly, Phoenix would have been alive a week later. But it was not politics. One could not have extrapolated public policy from a cuddly animal. I was always adamant about that."

So what happened to Phoenix, who dropped out of the news as fast as she entered it? The story has a happy ending. After three weeks in the Boards' garage, being inspected every few days by vets, she was allowed into the garden and their kitchen. After five months she was allowed into a field, where she teamed up with Teddy the horse. The two are now inseparable, and Phoenix, says Michaela, will only eat horse food.

Phoenix became a pet. "Someone rang to ask if she would star in a pantomime, but we said only if it was a one-off show. But they wanted her for nine weeks. We had thousands of letters from all over the world," says Michaela. "We replied to them all and then we gave up farming. My brother-in-law, who owned the animals, received compensation, and my husband was paid to clean up the farm. We ended up giving money back to the ministry because they said we had been overpaid."

The one-year-old calf may have lost some of her wide-eyed charisma, but she has gained attitude and a serious liking for people. She is now raising money for leukaemia. "My husband had the cancer and she's going to agricultural shows around the country. They started in April and she will be in Scarborough, Derby, lots of places. We now have a nice line in Phoenix T-shirts and mugs. So far we've raised more than pounds 200."

With that, the calf that held a nation in suspense for a few days, and made her way to the top of the political ladder, nuzzles up to Teddy the horse and Michaela feeds her an apple. Hopefully, as in all the best stories, they will live happily ever after.

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