The relationship between the animal agriculture industry in Australia and animal activist groups has faced many challenges. The proposed ‘Ag-Gag’ laws that have arisen in the United States of America and are said to be filtering into the Australian legal landscape has heightened these pre-existing challenges and tensions. The meat, dairy, wool and most recently greyhound racing industry have all come under scrutiny by animal activists at one point for their alleged inhumane and cruel treatment of animals, some disagreeing with the function of the industries altogether. This essay seeks to explore both cases on proposed ‘Ag-Gag’ laws and their place in the current landscape, examining arguments from both animal farmer lobby groups such as Australian Farmers Federation (AFF) and animal activist groups such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). More specifically the distinct strategies of both groups will be analysed and how the most balanced solution may be reached, that would have benefits for both causes and assist in their advocacy and promotion of the group’s interests. The introduction of new communication methods and collection and spread of information will be explored and how key communication concepts contribute to the way advocates of both cases portray their arguments to broader society.
With a number of competing interests, the subject of ‘Ag-Gag’ laws prompts a varied debate from a variety of parties including, farmers and animal activists as well as those in government, the legal profession and the broader public. In a discussion paper by the RSPCA, Ag-Gag laws are outlined as any law that make the illegal the unauthorised taking, publishing or distributing of footage of farming enterprises, seeking employment under false pretenses and the mandatory reporting of evidence of animal mistreatment to authorities within 24-48 hours (RSPCA Australia, 2013). Legislation can have a significant impact on the capacity of an organisation or body to advocate within professional manner so it is important that ag-gag laws are considered from both animal activists perspective, animal farmers and bodies that make decisions and report on the laws such as government and media organisations.
There are fears from a number of animal activist groups such as the RSPCA that the nature of these laws, particularly the Criminal Code Amendment Animal Protection Bill proposed in New South Wales will not increase the safety and welfare of animals as the name suggests. Opponents of the law suggest that the laws themselves create the impression that the industry has something to hide, prompting distrust of farmers (Robbins et al, 2016 p121). More specifically, the mandatory reporting laws are believed by animal activists to inhibit the flow of vital information that is required to reveal systematic abuse in the agriculture industry and charge abusers as well as stifle public debate and awareness. As a significant economic industry, animal activists argue that animal farmers should not be presented with special privacy protection under the law. With improved technology, privacy has become harder to maintain. Briet outlines that access to information is a fundamental human right, outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this right has been implied in a number of Australia’s common and statute laws (Briet, 2011 p161). Investigative journalism has become an invaluable strategy to reveal the abuse that may occur in animal industries such as greyhound racing. Without the covert filming or unauthorised infiltration of the animal agriculture industry by activists it is unlikely that the illegal and inhumane practices would be revealed and prompt changes in current law, even though the filming may be considered to be a breach of privacy.
For example, exposé style journalism is commonly used by animal activist groups such as the RSPCA to promote their cause, with parts of full-length documentaries and raw footage distributed across social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Following a Four Corners documentary surrounding live baiting in the greyhound racing industry, the RSPCA along with the NSW, Queensland and Victoria Police raided five properties with 22 people suspending and charging them with animal cruelty (Meldrum-Hanna, 2015). The establishment of Ag-Gag laws in Australia would cause advocates, which at times can be seen to be part of the collaborative process of journalism, to act in an illegal manner to gain information that could be viewed by a number of groups information that should be accessed by the public easily. The restriction of this information jeopardises the flow of information in society and the informed consumer choice consumers of the animal industry have a right to, making if difficult to promote the animal activist cause in a manner that is professional and aligns with laws in place.
Whilst animal activists may see these “exposés” as a matter of public interest, animal farmer lobby groups argue a differing view. It is often argued by farmers and abattoirs that video footage taken of the slaughter of animals for food, to the average person can be misrepresented and easily taken out of context. Paired with our value of images in our communication landscape, images can be strongly argued to be misinterpreted by the public if no context or knowledge of the method is provided. Whilst defamation law cannot be applied to groups of more than ten people the implications these images and videos may have can damage the reputation of the animal farming industry. The communication strategies are designed to protect the reputation of the group (Briet 2011, p288-292), particularly for the Farmers Federation’s economic interest. For example, a number of animal farmers have said that animal activists will come late at night when animals are sleeping to obtain footage and their confrontational manner can cause the animals to appear more distressed than in their usual state (Francis and McRobert, 2014). Rather than the animal farmers using social media to distribute footage and photographs of the practices in the ways that animal activist groups may share information, lobby groups such as Australian Farmers Federation use facts sheets to provide cohesive information for consumers that outlines their practices, guidelines and policies (NFF, Farm Facts 2012 p14). The providing of this information and the support the publications have from government bodies could be argued to eliminate the need for animal activists to trespass onto land to obtain footage of the practices of farmers in killing animals and support the need for Ag-Gag type laws to prevent this activity. This strategy is used to advocated the standards of animal farmers and communicate these standards to the public in a way they can comprehend and reach a greater understanding of animal practices in a relevant context.
Animal activist groups have strongly argued that the creation of Ag-Gag laws would negatively impact the consumer choice of the public of animal products. Without access to information to what occurs in abattoirs, making a sound decision on whether to purchasing animal products is ethical for the consumer becomes a difficult task. It also diminishes the ability to ensure standards are fulfilled. Information and its accessibility is said to be vital to our democracy and choice (Briet, 2011 p171). The value of the animal agriculture industry to Australia’s national economy ($48.7 billion dollars) can be seen to be a significant conflict of interest in the maintaining and honesty of standards and practice. Animal activists can argue that farmers as well as government bodies have a greater interest in protecting the industries economic value, than the rights of the animals. The economic value of the industry could be argued to be in the national interest where is animal activists would argue the practices of the animal agriculture industry is in the public interest. With the consumer demand for lower-priced food, the conflict of interests has become an increasing concern for animal activists who have the interests of the animals as a first priority. The RSPCA introduced the Animal Approved Farming Scheme in order to create awareness on what meat products promote the welfare and wellbeing of animals (RSPCA, 2016). The scheme outlines standards on layer hens, pigs, meat chickens, turkey and salmon. All types of products have the RSPCA standard for the scheme outlined on their website and approved products contain identifiable RSPCA branding. This can be seen as a way that the advocacy group has tried to promote the need for animal welfare as well as access to information that can assist in a consumer’s decision making. It allows a degree of transparency in the industry but this cannot be supported if Ag-Gag laws give additional protection to farmers and they cannot access the land to ensure the standards are being met.
The Impact Report of the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme, since its establishment 20 years ago, demonstrates how animals in Australia have benefited from improved living conditions (RSPCA, 2016 p4) as a result of the scheme. The report outlines the assessment process and the work the RSPCA has done with Australian farmers, making the informational accessible to the public. This can be seen to be a strategy that more effectively promotes the welfare of animals rather than the more extreme approach undertaken by groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Groups such as PETA suggest that consumers should stop consuming animal products altogether, a significant concern for the agriculture industries and their branding and economic interests.
Examining the balance of arguments and consumption of meat in Australia, it is unlikely that the goal, to stop everyone that eating meat that PETA have, will be achieved. This approach is supported by text images that are targeted at people’s moral and ethically conscious. These include slogans such as “The Truth About Eating Animals. It’s Mass Mechanised Murder.” This strategy can be seen to neglect communication approaches such as the dialogic turn. The dialogic turn requires an aim for common good, a need for learning and understanding between parties (Arnett 1987, p82-83). In contrast to PETA, the RSPCA implementing their Approved Farming Scheme, acknowledges that it is unrealistic that, whilst most would disagree with animal cruelty (RSPCA, 2016 p), the argument is not going to persuade everyone to stop eating meat. Rather the RSPCA advocates their case to acknowledge and learn about a neutral ground between animal activists and farmers, utilising the dialogical turn approach and establishing a common ground that balances the common good of both groups putting the wellbeing of animals at its forefront. Rather than trying to mask animal slaughter practices as Ag-Gag laws by animal activists are viewed to do, the RSPCA creates a degree of transparency that implements a greater trust than what limiting access to information would.
Having Ag-Gag Laws or not having the laws, can both be said to allow groups the freedom and control to censor the information they provide the public. This can be either classed as censorship by the law or self-censorship (Briet, 2011 p274). It can be argued the censorship that the law promotes, limits the freedom of expression of animal advocacy groups. Freedom of expression is not an explicit right in Australia, relying on other laws for protection (Briet, 2011 p319-321). If laws are introduced that conflict with the implied right of freedom of expression, it can be inhibited greatly. Both arguments can be seen to be an expression by both groups and being an issue that has significant involvement from the government could also be argued to be political communication to a degree, particularly with the involvement of ministers such as Barnaby Joyce. By implementing Ag-Gag laws, this would allow the agriculture industry and government bodies to have complete censorship over the information about their treatment of animals to the general public, the information guided by their economic and commercial interest. On the opposing side, having no laws in what footage can be published and obtained by animal activists groups enables the lobby groups to be selective on what images and video they show to reach their end goal as they are not required to supply all the information they collect. The American Ag-Gag landscape, which is further developed than the Australian Ag-gag laws, has seen the law established in 7 states but has not necessarily prevented activists from entering the properties nor the cruelty that occurs. Rather individual activists are being charged with criminal offences, some even being considered ‘terrorists’ (Shea, 2015 p 338 – 341). This has created a significant backlash from the community as it has call significant principles into questions such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression, damaging the trust between consumers and the agricultural industry as well as the trust of activists as the laws result in their actions being illegal activity, making their measures to obtain information even more extreme.
RSPCA have demonstrated concerns about individual animal activists have not been supplying the information to them in a timely manner that allows them to act within the statutory time frame, making the RSPCA authority to enforce animal protection laws limited. Whether there are laws guiding the publication of information or not, each group will be guided by their interest and this will in turn alter the certain ‘truths’ they choose to share with the public. Censorship of information from either scale, too loose or too stricter laws can be problematic for the professional conduct of farmers, activists, governments and communication professionals alike.
Briet highlights that the media is more likely to focus on the shocking, negative and ‘extraordinary’ (Briet, 2011 p 206), in turn acts of animal cruelty gaining more attention than the humane animal treatment. As it has been further discussed some animal groups such as PETA will publicise footage that will have to largest impact and greatest effect, tending to be more violent representation of animal slaughtering in Australia and if Ag-Gag Laws are implemented, it is reasonable to suggest that animal farmers will only provide information that advocates their cause in a positive manner but with a free legal and ethical reign on what information can be filmed and published, animal activists will be able to use this to their full advantage also. This would not give either industry an adequate chance in advocating their cause wholly and in a professional, balanced and ethical manner.
It is reasonable to conclude from both cases, that the ag-gag laws do not benefit the advocacy for either cause, instead an alternative solution ought to be reached. It is recognised that farmers are entitled to protect the biosecurity of animals (National Farmers Federation, 2016) their properties and their workers from physical damage from the extreme behaviours and actions for animal activists. It recognises that animal activists and further the general public are entitled to transparency of the practice of animal industries in order to support educated debate, discussion and practice informed consumer choice. The lack of response and action by regulatory bodies are argued to increase animal activism as it appears to animal advocacy groups that nothing is being done (Robbins et a, 2016 p 121-125). The proposed bills in both Australia and America do not appear to attempt to solve the problem of animal abuse but rather prevent the access to information that demonstrates the abuse is occurring.
Keeping the interests of both groups, it is argued that transparency would provide benefits for both, allowing them to reasonably fulfill their interests in a professional manner and with minimal disruption and breach of privacy of private properties. Animal farmer groups would be able to build trust within the community. The need for increased access to information on the practices of animal agriculture industries would promote the need for higher consideration of animal welfare. An increased focus on animal welfare, although can cost more often leads to higher purchases of meat and dairy products (Robbins et al. 121-125), a benefit for the branding of the agriculture industry. With increased transparency created by strategies such as monitored CCTV in abattoirs, animal activists would not be required to trespass or break and enter to obtain the information they consider to be in the public interest. These strategies would further balance privacy, freedom of expression and censorship.
Regulation is a key tool in maintaining standards across any professional practice but establishing an approach to regulation that balances the interests of all parties can be a difficult task. A co-regulatory model that is used in journalism and public relations could be argued to be a possibly strategy to promote a more amicable relationship between animal activists and animal farmers. Briet discusses how this model allows industry experts and professionals to play a role in establishing informed and practical regulations with their knowledge of the industry that outside bodies may not maintain (Briet, 2011 p55-64). With significant national and economic interests of governments and the agriculture industry, for some it would create further distrust if the industry was solely regulated by these bodies. The RSPCA already maintain investigatory powers under state and territory animal welfare legislation (RSPCA, 2016). Increasing these would decrease the need for other animal activist groups with more extreme goals and actions to conduct their own investigations. Whilst the RSPCA does not agree with fixed time periods for animal cruelty, “the current statute of limitations for litigation under animal cruelty legislation is between 12 months and 2 years, depending on the jurisdiction” (RSPCA, 2014 p5), so a chance for successful prosecution requires information to be reported as soon as possible. The RSPCA annual animal outcome report outlined despite the investigation of over 60,000 reports of animal cruelty across the country, only 217 resulted in successful prosecutions (RSPCA, 2015 p8). With increased power, the RSPCA would be able to establish a more systematic way of reporting of animal abuse, allowing the collation of repeat offenders, rather than individuals withholding information to form a stronger case that in the end, is unable to be used in prosecution due to the statutory limitations. A more effective regulatory system that balances the interests of both parties would decrease the need for ag-gag laws that do not seem to benefit either advocacy group.
The relationship between the animal agriculture industry and animal activists is likely to continue to face challenges, now and in the future. The different interests of the two groups can at times clash, but with careful consideration of laws, regulation and communication strategies both groups may be able to reach a point where interests are balanced and all can advocate for their interests in a legal, professional and ethical manner. By exploring concepts such as professional communication, privacy, communication ethics, sourcing information, censorship and regulation advocates for both cases can have the best chance of presenting their cases to consumers in a way that allows all parties to reach the most balanced outcome for all interests.
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