How I got tangled up with the Beeb is another story, but suffice it to say that my kitchen table has hosted a team from Countryfile and, separately, a nice man from Radio 4. It’s true what they say about sound men by the way, they eat everything. Reporters are more discriminating and Michael Buchanan (this was before he became famous and important) was kind enough to praise my pizza recipe. But I digress.
The law of the land about rights of way suffers from poor drafting and even poorer development via case law. A spectacularly bad ruling by an eminent judge who should have known better ruled that once an application to re-open a forgotten ROW is made, those opposing the application have to prove that it does not exist. Someone whose property may be crossed by a footpath which physically cannot have been used for centuries can find himself trying to prove the negative. It’s difficult to prove that a remark in a vicar’s diary (“Today I went to see Old Mr Noakes . Walked along the footpath by Jenkin’s farm to his cottage. Daffodils early this year.”) does not mean that a ROW exist today, or a line on a map marked ‘Footpath for Miss Folkes’ does not mean that the Chairman of the Enclosure Commission’s sop to Miss Folkes, his aunt, imposes such a right two hundred and fifty years later. That’s why most rules of evidence rely on the positive, not the negative. “There’s a line on a map, is it the correct sort of line, does it exist in law?” That is the correct question. “There’s a line on the map therefore it’s a right of way, prove it doesn’t ” is not how things should be done.
Anyway, along came the Beeb from Radio 4. Mr Buchanan is a polite and conscientious man and together we walked Miss Folkes’s path as I explained the law. We agreed that the law was bizarre, with our only point of disagreement the desirability of walking along a route that went from one low-lying property to another low-lying property over a low-lying field. He hails from the Hebrides and as such considers anything less than a semi-vertical scramble as not being worth the effort. I think it was broadcast on Farming Today and it was reported straight. Then came Countryfile.
When you see a clip on a Beeb programme it’s easy to forget that even when it’s merely a few minutes interviewing a simple rustic it is the result of several takes, of side issues explored and discarded, of decisions made by producers who have an agenda and who cut and paste and stitch, omitting anything that undermines their narrative. It’s not the fault of the cake-gobbling sound man, the person with the clipboard or even the amiable Tom Heap, it’s the faceless, unaccountable people sitting in offices far from the reality.
My narrative was the injustice of the current state of Rights of Way law which had cost five of us £25,000 to oppose a footpath that was never a right of way, had cost the county £30,000 to process and had cost the applicant two second class stamps, but Tom had a better idea. He wanted his interview to bring out the human side of the story, the effect the faulty process had and still has on little people, the people who cannot fight the ramblers, the big horse riding associations, the footpath fanatics who see only the law and not the human cost. So he asked me to articulate why, having won our case already, I was so anxious to bring the chaotic mess to his attention. It took two takes.
“Everyone who owns a house, a garden or a little piece of land is at risk. A line on an old map found in an attic, a chance mention in a letter or diary, a few stones turned up by someone digging a trench, any one of these can, as the law currently stands, resurrect a path that has not been walked for hundreds of years. Everyone is vulnerable to the injustice of this law. It could be you.”
Tom nodded, pleased, when he put his microphone away.” Yes,” he said. “Shivers down the spine.”
They cut that bit out.
It’s not what the Beeb tells you. It’s what they hide.