I recently saw the excellent film Of Fish and Foe, about the last salmon netsmen of the north-east of Scotland. The film-makers had gone along to chart the last bit of a once-thriving industry, but instead walked into a simmering, nasty conflict between the netsmen and animal rights activists.
This is a film everyone should see, for its calm objectivity and focus on telling the story – a superb piece of journalism. It did not set out to take sides, but at the end of the film I for one had not doubt who I sympathised with most.
The activists were determined to achieve what many would subscribe to – an end to seal shooting by the netsmen, and they deliberately got in the way of this legal activity.
It was the ruthless, clever-dick, self-centred way they appeared to be determined to make themselves into heroes that turned my stomach. The netsmen weren’t angels, but the protesters were shown, as far as I was concerned, to subscribe to misinformation about their opponents’ practices; they seemed to have no sense of the others’ humanity and struggle, with a sneering attitude.
I’ve got to be careful here because the organisation involved sent what I believe was a representative to the showing we attended – part of the Glasgow Film Festival – whose question to the film makers at the Q&A that followed focused on a publicity line from the film festival that may have misconstrued slightly what the protesters were up to. That they monitored such things and were prepared to attack on such grounds just emphasised, for me, the way they will lash out at anyone who questions their behaviour.
The rights and wrongs of salmon netting in a place where salmon runs have been diminishing is another argument, but this film showed that by being there, quietly documenting events, being objective, a true picture away from the hysteria, misinformation and headline-grabbing of web reports and even some daily mainstream journalism, a truth – not the truth, but some of it – can be arrived at.
Instead of being clever and manipulative the netsmen were prepared to let the cameras in, let them film stuff that a PR person would never have allowed, and be honest and open about their views and activities. On a human level, you had to sympathise with them.
There’s a lesson there for a lot of big organisations: I for one have always found that when as journalists we take our time to tell it like it is, and people are open and honest with us, everyone wins and the debate moves forward. Sure, smokescreens and spin win sometimes, and set an agenda… but if we do our jobs properly the truth will out.