28 December 2001

Union man held public eye

Anthony Gibsons plain-talking, no-nonsense commitment to

helping farmers come to terms with foot-and-mouth won

him the coveted title, FWFarm Personality of the Year.

South-west correspondent John Burns reports

DURING those grim days at the height of foot-and-mouth, television appearances by Barbour-clad Anthony Gibson quickly became required viewing. Twice-daily TV and radio broadcasts by the man voted Farmers Weekly Personality of the Year were the focal point for West Country farmers and many non-farmers too.

Conveying calmness and reassurance, the NFU south west regional director often seemed better-briefed than government officials. He anticipated and shared public anger at their inability to cope with the worst F&M outbreak the world has seen. And he pulled no punches when he felt ministers and their civil servants needed punching.

Mr Gibsons occasional decisions to put his own interpretation on events rather than toe the official NFU line were always eagerly snapped up by news-hungry reporters from home and abroad. But while delighted by the FW award, which he modestly suggests went to him because of his media exposure during the crisis, he hastens to explain the background to those many broadcasts.

His apparently effortless fluency in front of the camera and ever-ready sound-bites were the result of daily briefings with his regional NFU team and Devon NFU chairman David Hill, says Mr Gibson. The aim was to get the latest facts and translate them into terms understandable by farmers and public alike.

"They all put in a huge amount of work every day. We had a policy of nothing is too much trouble and never to say no comment, and we never refused to talk to local and regional media. But the nationals were treated with caution because they often have their own political agendas."

Mr Gibson was showered with public praise for his efforts and has won at least three other awards. Devon County Agricultural Association made him an honorary member, the Royal Bath and West of England Society gave him a special award, and South West Tourism also gave him an award for his defence of tourism during the crisis.

At the Devon County Show in August, dozens of members of the public approached him to shake his hand and thank him. Then, as now, he was somewhat embarrassed to be the focus of the thanks which he feels should go to the whole NFU team in south-west England.

Born and reared in Devon, Mr Gibson has always enjoyed country life. But he was never a countryman in the farmers sense, being on his own admission "totally impractical". Nor has he any personal interest in hunting, shooting or fishing. But he is passionately fond of other sports and his boyhood ambition was to follow in his fathers footsteps writing and broadcasting about cricket and rugby.

He read history at Oxford University – chosen because it was his best subject at school and was known to be a good preparation for a variety of careers. After graduating he was accepted for a PhD which might well have led to an academic life as a university don. But he was unable to get a grant.

Instead, he signed up for the West of England Newspapers journalism course. But it was cancelled. So when the University Appointments Board sent him details of a post as editorial assistant in the NFUs intelligence division, he applied and was accepted. He enjoyed the work, which included speech writing for then NFU president Henry Plumb.

After a move to the NFU Press office during the 1973/4 beef crisis, which he says was "quite exciting", Mr Gibson accepted the job of information officer for the unions six-county south-west region in December 1975. He later became NFU county secretary for Somerset, before being promoting to his current job.

Reminded of his boyhood dream of being a top sports commentator, he laughs and says: "Well, Ive had my chance. I did a lot of cricket commentating and some soccer too, for the BBC. But I was just not good enough for the top bracket".

Some people believe Mr Gibson would make a good politician or barrister. Or even head of public relations at NFU headquarters in London. But the tedium of an MPs life has never appealed to him, neither has being a lawyer. And he does not want a London job. But he would pursue the idea of being an elected member of a south-west regional assembly – if such a thing is ever set up.

Meanwhile, Mr Gibson says he will continue to keep as many of his members in farming as possible. "There is a real desire among farmers to draw a line in the sand after F&M and leave the old agriculture behind," he says. "If desire and initiative can be harnessed into worthwhile structures a majority – though not all – will survive." &#42