Six months ago on 30 May 2011, the ABC’s Four Corners aired ‘A Bloody Business’. An expose of the live cattle export trade from Australia to Indonesia, the program featured shocking vision from inside Indonesian abattoirs. Over the course of 45 minutes, the segment documented the depth of human cruelty and indifference to the powerless. In the weeks that followed it demonstrated the powerful role of the media in shaping and defining public debate.
For weeks after the expose, live exports rated in the top five issues discussed in the media as recorded by Media Monitors. An issue that had been around for decades with little political clout was suddenly being driven by the public with the government, opposition and industry scrambling to control the issue or adequately respond to the public mood. The welfare issues surrounding live export, which had been discussed primarily amongst members of organisations such as Animal Liberation and Animals Australia, were now the subject of anger amongst Alan Jones’s and Ray Hadley’s listeners.
The sudden eruption of national concern highlighted the public’s concern for the welfare of animals, its lack of knowledge of what actually happens to them, and the need to ensure transparency in their treatment.
Predictably, the government responded with an inquiry, to be led by former diplomat Bill Farmer. The Farmer Inquiry is not the first inquiry to look at the welfare aspects of live export. They have been numerous. The first inquiry into phasing out the live export of sheep was conducted by a Senate Select Committee in 1985. The inquiry concluded 'if a decision were to be made on the future of the trade purely on animal welfare grounds, there is enough evidence to stop the trade'. Of course it wasn’t. Little action was taken on animal welfare, sheep continued to be exported, and the live export trade in cattle to Indonesia commenced in 1993.
One of the more significant predecessors to the Farmer Report was the 2003 Keniry Review, chaired by Dr John Keniry. This was in response to the Cormo Express debacle, which saw 57,000 sheep rejected by the Saudi Arabian importerstating that the sheep were infected with scabby mouth. After 81 days at sea and the death of at least 5,500 sheep in horrendous conditions, the sheep were unloaded at Eritrea.
Over the years there has been a convoy of varied disasters such as the Cormo Express, including the Uniceb, which sank following a fire, causing the death of one of the crew and 56,000 sheep.
These incidences, including the death of 500 sheep from starvation and infection this month on a journey to the Middle East, have come and gone with little effect upon the public sentiment. However, this time it would be different. There was no fire, no sinking, no endless weeks at sea, but there was film: film documenting undeniable cruelty in the basic operations of this trade. The public’s sentiment was easily read by many MPs. On the day after the ‘A Bloody Business’ went to air, the Labor caucus meeting erupted after Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig announced a ban on exports to 11 Indonesian abattoirs, which many MPs felt did not go far enough.
Within days over 100,000 people had supported the GetUp petition to ban live export. This figure rose to close to a quarter of a million. The community, political and institutional response arose from the power of the visual. We had all borne witness.
Prior to the expose going to air, MLA and Livecorp had taken pre-emptive action, stating that they were to halt exports to the abattoirs in the footage. They had anticipated the likely community response to the footage taken of cows they had shipped to Indonesia and had been lobbying Minister Ludwig in the weeks prior to fast track its animal welfare plan so it could be released prior to the show going to air.
It is highly unusual to be allowed within an abattoir with a camcorder. The placement of a camcorder at the pointy end of the process by which animals are turned into profit is proving to be far and away the most effective means of bringing about change for their protection.
This month, McDonald’s in the U.S. has ceased purchasing eggs from their major supplier because of the broadcasting of their practices. The individual who went undercover to at Sparboe Farms to record the video, screened on 20/20 and the World News with Diane Sawyer, told ABC News, "I saw workers do horrendous things to birds, they were thrown, grabbed by the neck, they're slammed in and out of cages." The verbal recounting of his experiences, whatever his power of description would be of little consequence. As with live export, it is the footage that carries the power to move the debate, to change policies and affect public sentiment.
The case of live export highlights the issue of what we should be allowed to know. What should we be allowed to know about the intentional infliction of suffering on other sentient creatures?
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