A black and white issue

The culling of badgers is irrelevant, malicious and ineffective.

I'm not a fully-signed up fan of "evidence-based politics", which you might find odd, since I'm a statistician. It's because it's often used to mean "I've found a small sociological study which supports the belief I had anyway, and I'm now going to call that study proof that I am right, and label anyone irrational if they don't agree with me about the science." Applying the definite article in front of the word "science" is the fastest way to make me suspect you're trying to shut down a debate.

Sometimes, though, the evidence comes from a more reputable source: a properly designed scientific experiment. Such is the case with the evidence about the impact of culling badgers on the incidence of bovine TB. I'm a little shocked to find, via googling, that I first wrote about this in 2008, more than three years ago. After all that time to review the scientific literature, DEFRA is now suggesting that farmers should be allowed to shoot badgers more or less at random, if anything a worse proposal than a total cull. With apologies, this is a black-and-white issue.

The Independent Study Group on Cattle TB (ISG) presented its final report (to David Miliband: remember him?) in December 2007. To say that the statisticians who took part in the work of the ISG are eminent is like saying David Beckham is quite a well known footballer. Christl Donnelly, George Gettinby, and especially Sir David Cox FRS, are statistical royalty. They were core members of the ISG and assisted with the design, analysis and interpretation of the studies the group commissioned into whether or not badger culling would have a positive impact on bovine TB.

You can read the full report here. It's worth reading this paragraph from John Bourne, ISG Chairman, in his overview to the Environment Secretary:

'The ISG's work - most of which has already been published in peer-reviewed scientificjournals - has reached two key conclusions. First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others' data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better. Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.'

I don't really think it's worth trying to rephrase that, as the statement and the evidence which supports it are as clear as day. But let me try: The culling of badgers is a psychological displacement activity, which will needlessly increase the amount of suffering on the planet. That's bad enough. But it won't keep cattle free from TB either.

I can't remember the last time a policy managed to be irrelevant, malicious and ineffective, all at the same time. Sometimes - I was going to write "politicians", but that's unfair, we all do this - sometimes we wish for something so much that we refuse to notice that the actions we're taking will actually prevent our desire from coming into effect. Something like that is happening here, I think.

Caroline Spelman - it was quite hard to convince people that selling off forests made sense (you did convince me). If you permit random culling of badgers to go ahead, you'll look back at the forest sell-off U-turn with fondness, I think. Please make use of the world-class, first-rate, independent scientific work that has been carefully done on this subject, and ask both DEFRA and the NFU to think again.

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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge