I know toff-bashing is a tad easy, but after watching Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programme tonight someone needs to call him out on the ridiculous soapbox he has put himself upon. Hugh’s Chicken Run (on Channel 4 tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday, God help us) is his attempt to educate Britain as the intensively-reared origins of its favourite meat, chicken. This is not a nice thing – most chickens farmed for meat are crammed into barns, bred to grow as quickly as possible and risk being ridden with disease. Nor is knowledge of it anything new – Felicity Lawrence’s Not on the Label covers the brutality and nastiness of factory chicken farming in far better detail than this television programme has so far.
In this programme, Fearnley-Whittingstall (whose name is so difficult to type I’ll refer to him as HFW from now on) is clearly aiming to emulate Jamie Oliver’s successes (of a sort) with Jamie’s Kitchen and Jamie’s School Dinners. But the differences start to become apparent quite quickly. Jamie Oliver is hardly the most popular figure in the UK, with his Mockney accent and do-gooder attitude. Yet there was still a streak of authenticity about Jamie Oliver’s efforts – he used his own money to help back the restaurant project in Jamie’s Kitchen, and both confronted those in power while sympathising on the front line in Jamie’s School Dinners.
There’s none of this present in Hugh’s Chicken Run – where, with neither the guile nor the skill as an investigative reporter to investigate existing farms and farmers (and besides, it’s been done before by people far less famous), he sets up his own. Or rather, two – one a free range farm of well-kept happy chickens, and the other a bog standard pile-em-high and kill-em-cheap intensive farm. The first proves rather labour intensive, so HFW recruits a group of “volunteers”, to whom he doles out chickens for them to all do the dirty work while he gets top quality free range birds to sell at the end, in some sort of modern-day reality television version of feudal labour.
The second farm is much more terrifying – it’s not just a mock chicken factory farm – this is the real thing. HFW seems happily willing to needlessly imprison, force feed, torture and then slaughter thousand of chickens, all for raising awareness of an issue already in the public domain. All too happy to embrace the system he has set out to knock down, it’s a strange and brutal kind of hypocrisy, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall closely tending to his very own chicken Auschwitz. And to what end is this for? Channel 4 explain…
His plan is that for one week more than 50% of chicken bought and consumed in Axminster is free range. That includes curry houses and burger bars, ready made sandwiches and pub lunches. At the moment, less than 5% of the chicken sold in the UK is free range so it’s a major undertaking.
HFW’s focus is different from Jamie Oliver’s – quality and animal welfare – a dangerous road to go down at the best of times with an often unsympathetic public (and he as a local businessman who sells organic food). Jamie Oliver did his best to work with the people he tries to convince – dinner ladies, school administrators and parents – mindful of the constraints they’re under and working on how to keep costs down while working to make healthier food. But there’s none of this so far, apart from a brief attempt mid-show to show his humanity, swanning into a local work canteen, cooking a meal and then buggering off with no mention of the extra cost. With this hectoring and nannying, all the while quietly dispensing death and misery in his own back yard, HFW really shows himself up as nothing more than a pompous hypocrite.
And yet people still think Jamie Oliver is the bigger wanker. Why? Can anyone explain?