By Kevin Heath
For the last 30 years or so nature lovers across the world have been spoiled by the BBC and its high quality nature programming. All that is now to change as the BBC gets set to ‘dumb down’ its nature programming moving away from science and facts towards populist hyperbole and emotional anthropomorphism.
In a piece in todays Daily Telegraph the BBC has confirmed that the scientific and factual approach of wildlife programming that led to the BBC dominating nature documentary production with global admiration is to come to an end.
The head of the corporation’s Natural History unit, Wendy Darke, said in the piece that the BBC will not be seeking to replace Sir David Attenborough but will aim to present populist programmes with a range of presenters.
Ms Darke has said she is developing a range of presenters to work on BBC wildlife programmes, stressing the “need to continue to innovate and diversify”. She added: “That includes offering a more diverse range of presenters and programme styles and formats that have relevance to people’s lives.
“Often people who don’t come from a biological degree background ask questions that the audience would ask. I’m a real believer in having a mixture of ‘ologies’ in terms of expertise.” She added: “Raw passion is important, as is an ability to talk knowledgeably about the subject. For me, it’s almost about looking into somebody’s eyes and asking, ‘Am I engaged by what you’re telling me?’ ”
There’s no doubt that this movement away from science based programming to hype and emotion driven programming will mean that the BBC will lose its place in wildlife production quality. You’ve only got to look at the ‘populist’ nature programmes on the cable and satellite channels to see how poor quality many of them are.
But the writing has been on the wall for a number of years now as the BBC general output has been dumped down to a level that many over a certain age would find surprising.
Was Planet Earth Live a foretelling of the new style BBC wildlife documentary quality a programme better left on the cutting room floor than being broadcast on prime time BBC1?
The BBC Natural History Unit has recently come under fire a number of times for the way they mixed wild and captive footage together to show the story – such as the birth of the polar bear cubs that was filmed in a man-made den but broadcast as appearing to have been filmed in the wild. Obviously there are things you just can not film in the wild but with the new populist emphasis of the BBC just how far will they be willing to go to mix up natural and staged events I order to sensationalize their programming?
In a way the move by the BBC to hype and populism is just reflecting what has been happening over the last 10 years in particular in relation to nature and wildlife. The natural world is now a major global industry generating vast profits for people and organisations. It is getting harder and more competitive to keep up a place and income in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Sometimes facts and science just gets in the way of a good story and as such are dispensable.
The most recent aspect of this is the campaign of the WWF and SOCO International with oil development in the Virunga National Park. Despite the exploration being nowhere near the gorilla sector of the park the gorillas were a central aspect of the campaign to bring an end to the oil development. There was a very real decision in the WWF campaign to mis-represent the reality of the situation and take advantage of the ignorance of the public in order to achieve their aims.
While I’m certainly no defender of SOCO, the WWF made a big mistake by trying to brush over facts and reality. Saying the gorillas of Virunga were threatened by oil exploration around Lake Edward is like trying to say that fracking for shale gas around Buckinghamshire would put the red squirrels of the Brecon Beacons at risk.
Even looking locally things are changing in the wildlife and nature conservation sector and it is not necessarily a positive change. 20 or 30 years ago local conservation groups would have a high percentage of staff who were science-based ecologists today many groups are now dominated by activists They may have ecological qualifications but they are no longer motivated by science but by activism and that is not always a good things.
This change from science and fact based groups towards activism based groups means you get the situation whereby objections are stated to developments and housing based on nothing more than rumour and second had reports rather than actual facts. When you get local wildlife groups opposing housing and using reasons such as ‘three weeks ago someone thought they might of seen a newt on the site’ then there is a real issue.
How far will the new populist BBC go with ignoring facts if it gets in the way of a good TV programme? Will the BBC become more of an activist based wildlife programme producer, happy to ignore science, in order to reinforce misinformation and misconceptions of the public because that is the current political flavour of the month and it gets the viewers?
Sadly I think the days of the BBC Natural History Unit winning international acclaim and awards are coming to an end.