BBC presenter held in police custody for hours

BBC presenter and naturalist Chris Packham spends  hours in custody after hunters confront him in Mizieb.

BBC presenter and naturalist Chris Packham.
BBC presenter and naturalist Chris Packham.

Tweetstorms, video diaries, blog posts, and Facebook appeals: not even 15,000 hunters and the Wild Birds Regulation Unit can withstand the social media onslaught that the Coalition Against Spring Hunting has managed to choreograph, and export beyond Maltese borders.

With the BBC, and newspapers The Guardian and The Sun switched on to Malta’s derogation from the EU’s ban on spring hunting, a new front has been opened on the war against bird shooting: the English sensitivity to animal cruelty.

But matters came to a head yesterday, when BBC Springwatch presenter Chris Packham was asked to report at the ALE police headquarters at 4:17pm. Supporters instantly started tweeting #freechrispackham,  BirdLife’s €50,000 crowdfunding target reached within hours, tourism boycotts mooted on Twitter, and supporters asking celebrities and the BBC to lend their support.

Five hours later, Packham was released. It turned out that the ALE were acting on complaints by the FKNK that Packham had breached their privacy and defamed the hunting fraternity: similar accusations in the judicial protest the FKNK filed earlier in the week against the Commissioner of Police.

Packham said the police also had concerns that they had been misrepresented by the BBC presenter in his video documentary. He was not accused of anything, but Packham said that at one point he was threatened with arrest unless he releases a statement to the police. “I did everything I could to be cooperative with the police.”

AlternattivaDemokratika chairperson, Prof. Arnold Cassola, issued a message of solidarity for Packham, and another green activist, David Camilleri, who said he had been assaulted by hunters in Gozo. “We would like to express our solidarity with David Camilleri and Chris Packham who, in different circumstances, have fallen victims to intolerance and violence.

“Everybody should be allowed to express freely their opinion for or against spring hunting, but threats and intolerant behaviour are simply not on. The quicker one learns this, the better”.”


Public relations disaster

People like Lino Farrugia, the chief executive of the hunters’ federation FKNK, was unable to handle the criticism. Collating all the press cuttings they could find on the web, the FKNK issued a statement calling TV personality Bill Oddie, who joined the League Against Cruel Sports in Malta this week to monitor the season, a “mental case” for having suffered from bipolar disorder.

And while the Maltese police were flying an ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ (read: a drone) over the heads of unsuspecting hunters – 22 sorties outside of hunting hours – Farrugia was calling on the Commissioner of Police and the commissioner for data protection to protect hunters’ privacy against the intrusion of Chris Packham and his film crew. The enduring image was of Packham being filmed walking into public land at Mizieb, before being assaulted by a mob of some eight hunters, demanding that the cameras are switched off.

The political parties stayed away from the controversy: Prime Minister Joseph Muscat yesterday reminded Gozo voters that the PN leadership had “failed to take a stand” on spring hunting - “You know where you stand with us. We promised spring hunting and the season was opened. And like we promised the hunters, we will keep our promises with the trappers,” he said, referring to the ban on trapping enforced by te European Union.

As the hunters floundered with their public relations disaster, Packham’s video diaries on YouTube captured the attention of thousands of British netizens, witnessing the naturalist’s heart-breaking tears as a Montagu’s Harrier, an illegal quarry, is slowly euthanised after suffering from shotgun wounds it cannot recover from.

On Twitter, hashtags like #maltamassacre and #stopspringhunting got instant play, peaking in the late hours of Friday after MaltaToday published its interview with Packham that same day.

Malta’s High Commission to the United Kingdom has had its fair share of complaints too. The standard letter it has been sending out to concerned complainants is a copy-and-paste from the parliamentary secretariat for animal rights, but it does not fail to denigrate the public relations effort of conservationists from the UK.

“Publicity-seeking efforts of individuals do little to contribute to this healthy debate constructively. Instead, they thrive on sensational exaggerations, if not outright fabrications, and trivialise what is essentially a legal, social and an environmental issue…. Cheap, publicity-seeking claims of ‘millions of migratory birds blasted out of the sky’, ‘unregulated hunting seasons’ and similar statements fall apart in the face of the following facts,” the reply goes, listing numbers to back up Malta’s enforcement record and high rate of hunters’ compliance with their legal obligations to provide complete bag data.

“Malta has one of the harshest, if not the harshest in Europe penalty regimes against illegal shooting and taking of wild birds, with penalties including up to €15,000 fine, imprisonment of up to two years, permanent revocation of license and confiscation… By way of comparison, the highest penalty envisaged for illegal hunting in the UK is a GBP 5,000 fine,” it continues saying.

What the hunting lobby and the Labour government – which curried favour with the FKNK in the election campaign by promising not to ‘gold-plate environmental laws’ – do not realise is how popular the spring hunting referendum is both in Malta, and now abroad.

Packham’s tweets have been circulated widely, with even actor Stephen Fry and comedian Bill Bailey joining in on the cause.

The response has been varied. The head of the European liberals, Chris Davies MEP, has noted that penalties in Malta have been doubled but that he will be urging the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds “to provide evidence of the lack of enforcement of EU law to the Maltese authorities and the European Commission as soon as possible.”

Jean Lambert, London’s Green MEP, said Maltese officials and hunters were “clearly failing to take the EU rules seriously, it’s time for the Commission to step in and stop this dreadful practice.”

Even European Commissioner for the environment JanezPotočnik was furiously tweeted by supporters, having to respond that the Commission had alreadt taken Malta to court over its deogration from the Birds Directive. “Malta’s govt is responsible for enforcing, EU is and will continue to monitor,” he replied.

Supporters of legal hunting in Malta also point out that the Brits are overlooking the fact that the hunting season has been granted the fiat of the European Court of Justice. In 2009, the ECJ left the door ajar for the hunting of Quail and Turtle Dove during the autumn and for Malta to apply a derogation from the Birds Directive’s ban on spring hunting.

On its part, the Maltese government insists that the conditions for the spring hunting season are severely restricted. Hunters are permitted to shoot a maximum of two turtle doves and quails on any given day and up to four birds during the entire season. “The national quota is of 11,000 turtle doves and 5,000 quail… a far cry from the false claim of ‘massacres of millions of birds’ on Malta, which simply do not migrate over the Maltese islands in such numbers,” the government says.

Even hunters are complaining that they no longer find plentiful quarry to hunt. But here lies the rub, with conservationists saying that the population of turtle dove in severe decline. The RSPB says the turtle dove’s gentle purr (‘tur-tur’, which gives the bird its scientific name streptoteliaturtur) was once the sound of summer, but their population declined in the UK by 93% since 1970, and it now faces possible extinction as a breeding species by 2020.

Malta’s response this year was to field a complement of 69 officers, comprising regular Administrative Law Enforcement units and Armed Forces of Malta personnel, deployed out in the field at all hours. Almost 1,500 spot-checks were carried out on individual hunters, around 15% of all licensed hunters, to verify compliance with special spring hunting license conditions.

But Packham witnessed the downing of illegal quarry and birds of prey, and filmed police officers apparently unwilling to chase down hunters suspected of having shot at the birds. In an utter waste of time and only further throwing its reputation down the gutter, the police chose to arrest a BirdLife campaigner for filming a police intervention. 

On Friday evening, the ‘tweetstorm’ unleashed with the hashtag #MaltaMassacre had reached speeds of over 800 tweets per minute at one point.

The calm and peace of Malta’s spring had been shattered, not just by the gunshots in the countryside, but by the outrage of concerned citizens both in Malta and abroad.