Horse Meat Analysis

2013-1-21

The horse meat "scandal" has captured the interest of the British press. The following argument - that the story has been framed in terms the EU threatening children - is the result of textual analysis of Saturday's Telegraph.

Several items concerning the horse meat scandal appeared in the Telegraph over the weekend. On Saturday, the front page story "Horse in School Dinners" was supplemented by stories appearing on page four. In addition, horse meat was the subject of editorials and op-eds, a cartoon, as well as several letters to the editor. Finally, on the back of the paper a full page advertisement for a new car references the scandal: "Beef. With a lot of horses hidden in it."

The main story incorporates several directly quoted voices. There is a shadow minister who lays claim to expressing the "shock and dismay" of the people. Mostly, however, the directly quoted voices belong to mums. Despite being a rather nebulous entity "parents" are directly quoted as finding horse meat "appalling and disgusting". In addition, two mums are named explicitly, including Justine Roberts the chief executive of Mumsnet.

Mumsnet, an online message board for women, is an incredibly powerful force in the UK. Polticians live in fear of offending the Mumsnet community, and for political activists getting the support of Mumsnet is something of a holy grail. Therefore any statement from Mumsnet should be given considerable weight. Here is Mumsnet's pronouncement:

> Today's news that horse meat has been found in cottage pies delivered to schools in Lancashire underlines the fact that the low-cost catering firms who often supply schools and hospitals are, if anything, more vulnerable than the big supermarkets."

Here we can see that three entities are being set-up as passive victims of a process outside their control: catering firms, Lancashire, and the humble British cottage pie. (Consider an alternative framing: Lancastrian caterers are too cheap, lazy, and ignorant to make proper cottage pies for their own children).

The main article also points out three foreign groups responsible for contaminating the pies: The French (but who else?), The Danes, and The Poles. A French company, we are told is closing down after "passing off horse meat as beef". A supporting article has a picture the owner of the company enjoying a large glass of red wine, presumably after a hard day of throwing horses into a meat grinder. The Danes get of lightly, themselves the victims of a massive Polish deception:

> The [Danish-owned] company imported 60 tons of beef from Poland which was later found to be contaminated with up to 80 percent horse meat.

Note the highly modalised eighty percent claim. An accompanying info-graphic helpfully locates the source of the contamination with arrows. Poland is No.1.

The discourse framing the horse meat scandal as it appears on the front page of The Telegraph is one of European integration. There is a lot of bad Polish meat in the UK: it's wandering the streets of London, it's in factories in Hull, it's in cottage pies in Lancashire. The barely whispered implication: they are over here, they are in our jobs, they are harming our children.

How did all this Polish meat get in? The final responsible party is the enemy within:

> A British meat importer which supplies schools and restaurants was raided by the Food Standards Agency. Documents and computers were seized at two other premises.

This story template, government raid and seizure, is common in reporting on criminal activity. In particular, it is also the template for raids on groups facilitating illegal immigration, that favourite right-wing bugbear. The limited British element is thereby associated with a _criminal_ element. 

From the preceding examples, we can see that the overall function of the story is to accentuate the differences between the British and the non-British; the domestic and the foreign. What stands between the foreign threat and our children? Only plucky British mums (no doubt infused with "Blitz spirit") and a handful of packed lunches.


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