Claude Cockburn’s will not be a name known to many now, but fifty years ago this former foreign correspondent and writer was widely recognised well beyond the readership of The Times, the newspaper with which he is most associated. That he should feature here is due to something which he is credited with having written, although in fact he did not*. Journalists of all hues have often conspired together to try and grab a small portion of immortality, by evading the sub-editor’s eye by inserting into their organ some hidden message or double entendre. And it was Cockburn who was to claim that he won a competition between himself and other hacks after the Times published a headline: “Earthquake in Chile – not many dead”. Subsequent research has revealed that no such headline has ever appeared in the paper, but that has not stopped the myth gaining widespread currency.
What brings Cockburn to mind at this point was the publication at the beginning of last month of the RSPB’s annual Birdcrime report. Although the RSPB press office sought to wring maximum coverage for the publication, in fact (and perhaps as a result of) the nationwide preoccupation with Brexit it was hardly picked up by the mainstream media. As has become the norm with this annual event, the RSPB focused almost exclusively on hen harriers’ deaths and their obsession with the grouse shooting interests which they argue are behind them. And as has also become usual, the RSPB was not bashful about the casual distortion of the facts. Take this one:
‘72% of 58 hen harriers satellite tagged in a government study were killed, or most likely killed, on or near grouse moors (2007 – 2017)’
Those long used to the RSPB’s tenuous grasp of facts won’t be surprised that the report offers no support for this claim. And there is a reason for that to be found elsewhere in the same government study, where it flatly contradicts the RSPB’s highly selective reading of it. The total number of hen harrier which showed signs of illegal killing numbered just four. The other 38 has simply disappeared. And for those among RSPB supporters who embrace the conspiracy theorists’ article of faith, which is that the absence of evidence to support whatever half crazed load of balderdash is current among them, is in fact the strongest evidence in its favour, a study of eleven of those missing hen harriers revealed that transmissions had ceased well away from grouse moors and in the case of five of them, the last transmissions had been traced to Isle of Man, Dorset and three to France, where grouse shooters are pretty thin on the ground to the point of being absent all together.
The RSPB report is not of course aimed at adding to the science-based argument for or against the impact of grouse shooting. It is a recruitment tool aimed squarely at bringing aboard new members and political supporters. Had it been anything other than this, then the report would have been obliged to locate its headline in Cockburn territory with something along he lines of ‘Grouse moors: Not many hen harriers illegally killed”
*It is the case that Cockburn wrote something perhaps more wholly appropriate to the age in which we live than it was when he first coined it. He said: “Believe nothing until it has been officially denied”