Reported by Sarah Mullane
Nobody could have anticipated the tumultuous public reaction to last week’s viral news reports on the decision to reject incorporation of animal sentience directly from EU law into UK statute. Following Caroline Lucas’s failed attempt to bring forward a new ‘clause 30’ during the House of Commons debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill, several news outlets, including the London Economic, seized the opportunity to place a distinctly pro-EU spin on the story.
At the heart of this campaign was the Independent news website, who put forward several articles in which journalists made claims that Conservative MPs refused to acknowledge that animals could feel pain or emotion. Their eye-catching headlines (such as “MPs refuse to recognise that animals feel pain or emotion in Brexit bill vote) spread like wildfire across social media outlets, seizing the attention of the mass of its readers and overshadowing the rest of the week’s news.
The act of spreading false propaganda under the guise of news reporting is hardly a recent construct.
The whirlwind response to these articles left Downing Street officials and the Conservative party press office scrambling to contain the resulting aftermath, with Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, having to step in to halt the pandemonium. Gove’s statement to the House of Commons insisted that the idea that MPs voted against animal sentience was a “misconception” and that the government intends to make changes to the UK law so that “animals sentience is recognised after we leave the EU.” His statement followed reports that the government had in fact ordered MPs to vote against clause 30 in the House of Commons, after claiming that animal sentience was already recognised by UK legislation and insisting they would “deal with it later.”
In a surprise turn of events, the assertions of Gove and the Conservative party resulted in the release of several other mainstream media outlets dubbing the Independent as being ‘misleading’ and particularly ‘anti-Brexit’. The Independent has since updated its coverage to ensure accuracy on the matter, and has also released a new article addressing the concerns raised. Despite this, their new coverage still casts doubts on the intention of Government, as they state that although MPs “did not vote that animals are not sentient [..] neither did they vote for a law” to recognise them as such. Though it can be argued that the Independent has exploited its position within mainstream media to influence readers towards a preferred ideology (as most media often does), can it truly be argued that the Conservative party has been a victim of ‘fake news’ in this particular case?
The act of spreading false propaganda under the guise of news reporting is hardly a recent construct. We can trace history all the way back to the 13th Century BC and see clear examples of powerful men abusing their status so as to influence civilians and maintain power. We are not so far removed even now in the 21st century, where these actions are being officially dubbed as “fake news”. This follows the rise of social media, which has presented an easily accessible platform for almost anybody to have their say on any topic they should choose. In addition to this, the recent sensationalising of the phrase by US President Donald Trump has resulted in more and more journalistic pieces being recognised as supposed ‘fake news’, with his love of the phrase even resulting in it being awarded Collins Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’. The irony of this seems to be that, in relying on the notion to try and discredit any news which he simply dislikes or deems unfavourable, regardless of whether the content is factual, President Trump has caused the term to have practically lost its meaning.
In the case of animal sentience, I would be inclined to argue that the Conservative party are relying on a false notion of ‘fake news’ to discredit articles which are in fact perfectly accurate. It seems that the issue here is in fact about the way in which the Independent made its report, rather than the content which was reported. Although it is all well and fine for the Conservative party to push that fact that at no point have they voted that they do not believe in animal sentience, in rejecting the proposed clause 30, that is effectively what they have done. In stating that our current legislation already covers animal sentience, this is a clear example of their own use of ‘fake news’. The Animal Welfare Act (2006) at no point explicitly state that animals are deemed to be sentient beings, nor does it even cover the full range of “animals”, only including those which are domesticated.
With this in mind, it is hardly difficult to understand why the public were initially so eager to jump on the Conservative-hating bandwagon after the spread of the initial news stories on this matter. Despite promises that the UK will ensure animal welfare, the government is yet to take action to make this a reality. The Conservatives are instead relying on a “promise” that they will implement new UK statutes, when in reality they could simply take the initiative now and ensure us that EU animal law protections will be upheld following Brexit.
In addition, the Conservatives have not generally been known for their passion on the matter of animal welfare, with two consecutive prime ministers pledging to bring back a vote on fox-hunting. It seems entirely contradictory that UK citizens are expected to be reassured by a government asserting its dedication to upholding high standards of animal welfare, whilst many of their MPs believe that we should revive such a bloody sport. Simply promising that UK legislation will be amended at some point in the future, without giving any indication of how or when this might be, is not enough to settle the minds of many. With the history of politics presenting an array of false promises and backtracked pledges, the government’s unwillingness to adopt a simple EU rule on the recognition of animal sentience leaves us little faith in them to uphold a promise to draft entirely new law on the matter.