From Flu-Like Virus to Deadly Disease: Ideology and the Media


by Arran Stibbe, Ph.D.
Chikushi Jogakuen University, Japan
Volume 6, Number 2, Summer, 2001




In the film Outbreak, the fictional nightmare of the military treating an outbreak of Ebola as a war, and killing thousands to stop the spread of the virus, was narrowly averted by a heroic Dustin Hoffman (see Stibbe 1999). In Britain, a similar scenario is being played out for real, but with no hero to save the innocent victims. Shiva (2001) reports that:
In Britain, we see the army mobilized to kill a million or more farm animals and bury them in mass graves…

Unlike Ebola, however, foot-and-mouth disease is not fatal, cannot spread to humans and a vaccine is available. It is ‘quite similar to the common cold virus’ (Donaldson 2000) and amounts to, in the words of Freedland (2001), a ‘flu for animals’.

And yet, in Britain, despite being a nation of animal lovers with an active animal rights movement, the war against foot-and-mouth disease has led to the death of more than four million animals, some of who, stunned or injured, ‘survived hours, or even days, after a slaughter operation’ (BBC 4 April 2001): without significant protest. 

It is the contention of this paper that the influence of the British media, in the cognitive structuring of the virus in the minds of the population, is the crucial factor justifying what Freedland (2001) calls the ‘collective madness’ of the mass slaughter.

The paper results from the analysis of the ideological metaphors contained in a 200,000 word corpus of news reports about the foot-and-mouth crisis gathered from 4 national British newspapers, transcribed BBC news reports, and the Farmer’s Guardian. These were collected mainly from on-line archives from mid February 2001, when the disease first appeared, to the end of May 2001 when the number of new cases started trailing off. At the time of writing (September 2001), however, there are still new cases of the disease reported every day, with no end in sight.

Ideology, metaphor and social cognition

Central to how anyone treats animals is their individual knowledge. This knowledge is structured in people’s minds through various models, such as prototypes (Rosch 1981), scripts (Schank and Abelson 1977), schemata, networks, and metaphors (Lakoff and Johnson 2000). However, individuals do not live in isolation, and the same cognitive structures are often shared among members of groups, leading to social cognition (van Dijk 1997, 1993, 1988). The primary way for cognitive structures to be transferred is through being embedded in orders of discourse, that is, the ‘sets of conventions associated with social institutions’ (Fairclough 1989:16), and realized in the discourse, the ‘actual talk or writing’ (ibid:29), of these institutions or groups. People are exposed to the cognitive structures common to specific groups when they come into contact with discourse produced by members of the group, either through personal interaction or through the media (van Dijk 1988:108).

Metaphor is one of the structures which forms social cognition. Indeed, according to Lakoff and Johnson (2000:118), ‘everyday thought is largely metaphorical’. When the metaphors embedded in discourse act for the interests of the group which uses that discourse, and against the interests of other groups, they could be called ideological metaphors.

Ideology in the foot-and-mouth ‘crisis’

The two main groups involved in dealing with the foot-and-mouth crisis are the National Farmers Union, and the government. These two groups structure the concept of foot-and-mouth disease in ways which benefit their own interests, against the interests of other groups, particularly the animals, but also the tourist industry and taxpayers. The interests of the farmers are financial, while the government is concerned with appeasing the powerful farming lobby.

The cognitive structures used internally within these two powerful groups determine the strategies they adopt for dealing with the disease. Representatives of the groups include the president of the National Farmers Union, the Prime Minister, the agriculture minister, and government appointed ‘experts’ such as the chief vet and chief scientist, selected primarily because their opinions coincide with the government. These representatives have privileged access to the media, since they are the ones journalists rely on for the quotations and information which make up news reports (Fowler 1991). This allows them to spread the cognitive structures used within their group, including ideological metaphors, to the wider population. The more society at large uses the same metaphors in their thinking process as the government, the less likely they will be to oppose the actions that the government is taking.


The metaphors used to construct foot-and-mouth disease


Within the materials examined, as expected, the majority of direct and indirect quotations and information appearing in the news reports come from representatives of the farmers, the government and the experts they employ. There were two main ideological metaphors within the discourses disseminated by these representatives: foot-and-mouth as a war and as a fire. ?


What is foot-and-mouth disease? Is it ‘just like a dose of flu’ (Independent April 29) or, as one farmer puts it, ‘a powerful enemy… [whose] foot soldiers are beyond number and its capacity for harm beyond imagination’ (Independent March 19).. According to vet Neil Frame, foot-and-mouth is a ‘Blitzkrieg of disease ripping through the country’, although he goes on to complain about how ‘difficult the disease can be to see in sheep’ (Farmer’s Guardian March 23). Whatever foot-and-mouth is, the primary way it has been structured in the media is as a war.
The Telegraph calls the ‘nerve-centre’ of the operation to tackle foot-and-mouth a ‘bunker’, which ‘has the appearance…of a war-room during the worst of the Blitz’ (Telegraph March 4). From this war-room, the ministry is launching what it calls ‘pre-emptive strikes’ (Independent March 15) against sheep and pigs, killing thousands of healthy animals. The British Army has been ‘mobilised’ (Independent March 20), led by Brigadier Birtwistle, a game hunter whose ‘military career is said to have given him the perfect credentials for waging war on the spread of foot-and-mouth disease’ (BBC 29 March).

With the army involved and mass killing going on it is possible to lose sight of the fact that the ‘war’ is a metaphor, a cognitive way of structuring the complex domain of the disease and its economic consequences using the simpler domain of war. The virus has been constructed as the enemy, a ‘formidable’, ‘powerful enemy’ (Independent March 19), which ‘attacks cattle, pigs, [and] sheep’ (Telegraph Feb 22). However, those who are ‘in the frontline of the battle’ (Guardian Feb 25) do not have the virus in their sights. Instead, their targets are the very same cattle, pigs and sheep who are being ‘attacked’ by the virus.

The disease could, alternatively, have been dealt with non-metaphorically, i.e., as a disease, and treated by caring for sick animals (who recover after a few weeks), vaccinating susceptible animals, and letting natural immunity take its course. But, because of the war metaphor, vets have taken on a new role in the crisis, killing rather than curing animals. One vet is ‘keen to make a contribution to what resembles a war effort’ (Independent March 21), while the vice-president of the British Veterinary Association is calling for ‘a professional Territorial Army of vets’ (Farmer’s Guardian May 25).

So why is a war metaphor used? One reason is that war provides a means for the government to appease the farming lobby by placing themselves in the position of ally, and focusing attention on a common foe. The agriculture minister, Nick Brown ‘told farmers in Devon that the Government would ‘fight shoulder to shoulder with them to defeat the epidemic’ (Telegraph March 27). When relations became strained he told the farmers ‘The war we should be fighting is against the virus. To be fighting each other is a ridiculous thing to do’ (Telegraph March 16).

The reason farmers, particularly those whose farms are not in immediate danger, support the war metaphor is that they want the disease stopped before it arrives on their farms and causes reduced productivity and inconvenience in terms of looking after sick animals. And they want it stopped fast, avoiding vaccination ‘at all costs’ (Farmer’s Guardian April 20), so that they can sell their meat abroad at premium prices.

War metaphors justify taking drastic action to achieve these financial goals: ‘As a military man, [Brig Birtwistle] knows the importance of precise planning and tough action to achieve what he has described as “an apocalyptic task”’. (BBC 29 March emphasis added). The military, through their involvement alone, embody and entrench the war metaphor.

Roger Ward, of the National Farmers Union, directly invokes the war metaphor to justify killing animals on uninfected farms:

In any war when you’re fighting an enemy, and the virus was the enemy, there’ll be innocent victims. That’s very regrettable and one’s heart goes out to those farming families that have had their livestock destroyed. (BBC News 11 May)

Notice that the ‘innocent victims’ here are not the animals, but the ‘farming families’. Three days later the BBC says, ‘Farmers are the obvious victims of the outbreak of foot-and-mouth’ (BBC March 14), and in nearly all the other materials examined it is farmers, rather than animals, who are presented as victims. This is related to the cognitive structure involved. The cast of characters in a war scenario is ‘a villain, a victim, and a hero’ (Lakoff 1991). The victim is the farmer, the villain is the virus, and the hero is the government. Animals are not structured as victims in this scenario because the army cannot be ordered to kill ‘innocent victims’.

Animals have become the targets of the killings, which is a role usually reserved for the villain. There are some attempts to portray animals as the agents of the virus, where ‘suspect sheep’ (BBC 16 March) are ‘harbouring the foot-and-mouth virus’ (Telegraph March 17), and ‘spread[ing] the disease’ (Telegraph March 23), but these attempts are half hearted. There is no talk of ‘dangerous carriers of the disease’ or the like, because it is hard to make a sheep with a flu-like virus play the role of villain. This leaves animals with no role within the war metaphor.

Instead, the fact that the animals are the ones being killed in this war is hidden through the language used. Instead of ‘killing animals’, a variety of euphemistic metaphors are used. The BBC (May 11) talks about fields being ‘cleared’, while in the Times, animals are ‘lost’ (Feb 21). In one article in the Farmer’s Guardian animals are ‘taken out’, ‘eliminated’, ‘removed’, and ‘disappear’ (Farmer’s Guardian March 23).

The animals are disappearing, certainly, but only from the discourse surrounding foot-and-mouth. When words like ‘kill’ or ‘slaughter’ are used, the animals themselves are often simply left out, as in ‘slaughtering out the infection’ (BBC April 30), ‘culling his farm’ (BBC March 29), ‘kill out only where the disease strikes’ (Farmer’s Guardian 6 April) (emphasis added in each case). Even during their own funeral animals are made to disappear when the Telegraph (Feb 26) speaks of farmers who saw ‘their livelihoods thrown on to the bonfires…[and] watched the cremation without ceremony of their livelihood’ (Telegraph Feb 26).

All of these ways of taking animals out of the picture hide the fact that within the metaphor of war animals are implicitly being made to play the role of enemy soldier. This role is made explicit only in the few voices of opposition to the slaughter policy that reach the press. George Monbiot, of Greenpeace, talks about ‘the government’s declaration of war with Britain’s sheep’ (Guardian March 29), and the ecologist Vandana Shiva writes that ‘paranoia…is moving the military might of Britain to declare a war against its hoofed inhabitants’ (Guardian April 4).

Eventually, when the virus is eradicated, the war metaphor will allow the government to claim ‘victory’, even if there are no more animals left to catch the disease.

Forest Fire

The second major, and simultaneous, way that the disease is conceptualized is through the metaphor of fire. Foot-and-mouth is, according to the Times (Feb 22), ‘the forest fire of diseases’, which is ‘raging out of control’ (Independent March 25). Fires must be stamped out, except that in this case foot-and-mouth must be ‘stamped out by slaughter’ (Times March 28). This justifies killing any animals who have the disease.
But in addition to this, the forest fire metaphor also leads to, and justifies, the killing of healthy animals. In a mixture of metaphors ‘Tony Blair…stepped up the war against foot-and-mouth ordering [a] precautionary “firebreak cull”’ (Telegraph March 23). This means that, for example, on the island of Anglesey, ‘all sheep in a 50 square mile area are being culled…to create a “firebreak”’ (Farmer’s Guardian March 30).

In the forest fire metaphor, animals are taking the role of trees, with those ‘animals in the line of spread sacrificed’ (Farmer’s Guardian March 9). It is an unfortunate fact that in a forest fire some trees must be burned as a fire-break in order to save thousands of other trees. However, in the case of a fire, the thousands of other treeswould otherwise be consumed and destroyed by fire. In contrast, in the case of foot-and-mouth, animals become ill for a few weeks before recovering. Fighting fire with fire is the metaphor, but in reality this means fighting a mild animal illness with mass slaughter.

The fire metaphor also allows the government, in the form of the agriculture minister, to claim that foot-and-mouth has been ‘contained’ and is ‘under control’ (Telegraph March 12) in the run up to an election, although the Independent (March 22) asks ‘In what sense, precisely, is it under control?’


The case study of foot-and-mouth disease presented in this paper illustratesthe workings of ideological metaphor in the media. The model presented is of interested parties in positions of power using the reliance of the press on their quotes and information to spread cognitive structures, including metaphors, which justify their actions. These metaphors contribute to the forming of social cognition, large numbers of people within the population adoptand use the same structures in their thought and discourse.
In the case of foot-and-mouth, the structuring of the disease by the government and farmers revolves around the ideological metaphors of warfare and fire. These, it is argued, contribute to a way of thinking which results in, and can be used to justify, the suffering and mass killing of healthy and recuperating animals.

Predominant cognitive structures can be challenged, however, as can be seen in the occasional voices of opposition to the government appearing in the newspapers. The war metaphor is made to seem absurd when it is pointed out that ‘The blitz has been equated with 1,500 cattle becoming mildly ill’ (Independent April 29). However, new metaphors are required, metaphors which structure the disease in a way that recognizes that the only crime the animals have committed is having blisters in their mouths, not being able to eat for a while, and therefore providing less meat for the farmer who will eventually kill them.

Foot-and-mouth disease is a mild, non-fatal illness. However, through ideological metaphors dispersed through the media, the illness comes to be construed as a deadly virus, a virus which must be fought and stamped out, in all circumstances and at any cost. This leads to the immediate killing of any animal which has the disease, and ironically, the cognitive structuring itself results in a relatively harmless illness, foot-and-mouth disease, being made into a truly deadly disease.


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