Building a public controversy – Advocacy, media and politics in UK debates over bovine TB since 1971
Author: Angela Cassidy
This paper will explore the escalation and polarisation of public debates in the UK over government policies to cull wild badgers (Meles meles) in order to control bovine tuberculosis (bTB) in domestic cattle herds, which have been ongoing since the discovery of bTB infections in badgers during the early 1970s. Over the past forty years, the UK has seen a repeating cycle of policymaking, research, controversy, expert-led policy review, and escalating disease rates. It has also transitioned from a localised and/or specialist policy debate into a highly polarised public controversy attracting widespread media coverage, particularly since 2010. Science has played a central role in these debates – as one of several core sources of knowledge about badgers/bTB, but also as a rhetorical resource mobilised by all sides in these debates. This paper will present work in progress exploring the contrasting and frequently unfounded expectations that actors in badgers/bTB have made – about science (that it would easily resolve the problem); about policy (that it would be directed by ‘the evidence’); about publics and about animals (that they would lack agency and sociality). I argue that these persisting expectations, combined with legitimacy struggles over expertise, have contributed to the long-term continuation of this cycle, a breakdown of relationships between key actors and ongoing policy failure. I also present data on how the badger/bTB issue has been covered in the UK media, illustrating the roles of specialist journalists and audiences, non-governmental campaigners and party politicians in driving the further polarisation and public visibility of the debate. This case study can inform wider questions of how public scientific controversies come about, by identifying the factors driving change over time and precipitating the movement and uptake of an issue into the wider public sphere.