9 March 2001

PROTEST ONLY WAY TO SURVIVE?

Two TV documentaries about Farmers For Action, due to be

screened next week, will show how the crisis in farming

prompted ordinary people to clash with the government and

big business. John Burns looks at the background

EVERY farmer, or indeed any citizen of this country, who feels that no-one will listen to their problems, no-one understands them and no-one cares what happens to them will find both comfort and concern if they watch the two Channel 4 TV documentaries – scheduled to be broadcast on Mar 12 – about last autumns fuel protests.

These films – and another three to be screened later in the year – record an extraordinary tale of ordinary, politically-naive people up against the highest levels of power and challenging the very roots of authority. They will be of special interest to farmers because of the major role played by Farmers For Action.

The films are largely the work of freelance TV film maker Chris Goddard who spent much of last year following and recording the activities of FFA, especially its chairman David Handley.

Mr Goddard aim was to make a record of the trials and tribulations of a farmer in financial difficulties and how he was tackling them.

He started observing and filming other farmers in the previous year as a follow-up to a series of films he had made about a small engineering firms fight to avoid bankruptcy. He believes a whole stratum of society, not just small farmers, has for some time been suffering financially because of the activities of giant corporations which increasingly dominate governments and whose main interest is corporate profit.

"The corporate world has enormous political influence today and I worry about the growing abuse of the laws of commercial confidentiality to prevent citizens finding out what is really going on," he says. "I worry, too, about the strengthening of police powers, including those allowing monitoring of mobile phone calls and e-mails, and the fact we are moving steadily into more authoritarian times."

With unlimited access to FFAs meetings and Mr Handleys household, Mr Goddard shot 700 hours of video film record, some of which may prove to be of historic moments.

FFAs involvement in the fuel protests was almost accidental, he suggests. Rapidly rising fuel prices were just another blow to businesses suffering from declining milk prices. And, ironically, it was simply the FFAs experience of using mobile phones to organise various forms of direct action that enabled them to put the fuel protests together so quickly and so effectively.

"In fact, at the time they were concluding their action to put 3p/litre on the milk price Mr Handley was on his way to meet Express Dairies when he heard that Andrew Spence had been arrested in the north-east.

Fuel protests

And he was on the way to Dairy Crest when he heard that Richard Haddock in the south-west had announced he had called off the Plymouth protest.

"The government was rocked by the fuel protests and the way they caught the publics sympathy and it reacted by taking action to make sure it could never happen again."

Without doubt the fuel protests put FFA on the map, he says. "They had been protesting all summer about farmers problems but the mainstream media had ignored them. They could not understand why. But ironically FFAs success in the fuel protests appears to have made their return to protests about farming matters less effective."

Mr Goddard has noticed that the police seem generally more aggressive and less sympathetic. And more arrests have been made. The changes are the inevitable consequence of the fuel protests, he feels.

"Mr Handley has unwittingly been dragged into a more political position and he is now having to battle even for the right to protest. That is a very serious matter. Surely a civilised society must reserve the right to protest, and safeguard civil liberties?"

Mr Handley was arrested in January for allegedly obstructing a public highway outside a Dairy Crest plant. His case is to be heard by Stroud magistrates on Apr 4 and it is understood that it may become a case for the human rights court.

General election

Because of the impending general election, Channel 4 decided to postpone the first film about FFAs farming protests and move straight to the two about the fuel protests. That first film would have set the scene and explained how it was almost inevitable that the FFA would be involved in the fuel protests.

"Without that background first film there is a risk the FFA people are laid open to being labelled troublemakers. Im deeply sorry about that because I do defend their actions. They did not set out to be political agitators but theyve been forced into a political stance," says Mr Goddard.

He appreciates they were initially driven to form a protest movement because attempts to air their grievances through the usual channels achieved nothing. No-one would listen. Not the government, not the NFU, not supermarkets – above all not supermarkets – and so they felt forced to take direct action to save their businesses.

Top and above: David Handley at a protest at a Dairy Crest depot.

Right: The success of the

fuel protest and the public sympathy it gained rocked

the government.