As regular readers of this site will know, I have long been troubled by the systemic political and cultural bias at the BBC. It is not just that I am so concerned about the effects of this distorted world view, refracted through such a uniquely influential lens upon the world, upon public discourse. It is also because such an abdication from the founding principles of the BBC, one of the pillars of British society and the erstwhile crucible of some of its noblest ideals of the public good, seems to me to strike at the very heart of not just the Beeb itself but of all that I most loved and admired about Britain. As with the BBC, so it is with the country.
Throughout the relentless escalation of such concerns, however, there were a few oases in the Beeb’s output in which those otherwise rapidly diminishing ideals seemed to continue to flower. One such was its natural history programmes, which became ever more glorious, astounding and mesmeric, and their iconic presenter, Sir David Attenborough, widely considered to be one of Britain’s national treasures, largely because of his wonderful voice and magisterial presence.
Some may have winced at the anthropomorphism of these programmes and the grating implicit message that the animal world was far superior to the human race. But the real draw was of course the footage of the animals in their habitats, filmed by the most incredible photography which produced images of outstanding beauty.
Well, now we know some of this photography seemed incredible because it was just that -- incredible. It was not what it made itself out to be at all. It was a fake, a fix, a fraud. It emerged last week that shots of newborn polar bear cubs, which viewers were led to believe had been shot in the Arctic like the rest of the programme, had actually been filmed at a wildlife centre in the Netherlands – interspersed with actual pictures of the Arctic. The programme did not tell viewers that the cubs were born to a polar bear in a zoo. This was only revealed in a video among 14 other clips accompanying this programme on the BBC website.
The BBC claimed that Sir David’s narration was carefully worded so that it did not mislead audiences. Yet as the camera followed a female polar bear in the Arctic, he said:
‘“She starts to dig a shallow nest... once the snow here is deep enough, she'll dig down to make a den. She’ll then lie waiting for her cubs to be born as winter sets in...On these side slopes beneath the snow, new lives are beginning.”’
The viewers were thus led to believe that this was the bear which gave birth to these cubs. Much of the wonder and attraction of such footage derives from the impression that viewers are actually watching these events in their spectacular natural habitat – that they are watching nature in the frozen wild. For this particular sequence, viewers were therefore grossly misled.
That in itself was shocking enough. What was far worse, however, was the reaction to this revelation. For many seemed not to care in the slightest. The BBC justified it with an apparently uncomprehending insouciance which totally missed the point. Sir David’s own response, when he was asked about the fake footage, was quite jaw-dropping.
‘“During the middle of this scene, when you're trying to paint what it's like in the middle of winter in the Pole, do you say, ‘Oh, by the way, this is filmed in a zoo? It would completely ruin the atmosphere and destroy the pleasure of the viewers. It’s not a falsehood. How far do you take this? This is a penguin but actually it’s a different penguin colony than we did for that one’ – come on. We’re making movies.”'
‘“If you had tried to put a camera in the wild in a polar bear den, she would either have killed the cub or she would have killed the cameraman.”’
--a response echoed by Lord Patten, chairman of the Beeb’s own regulatory body, the BBC Trust, who said:
“The alternative was either been dead bears or dead people.”
Well maybe so; but what kind of an excuse is that? What if, during last summer’s riots, broadcasters had arrived in an area after the looting had finished -- and had then got some young people to put on hoodies and smash a few more windows so they could film them?
What if it footage of, say, a war reporter pictured running the gauntlet of roadside bombs in Afghanistan had actually been filmed in a mocked-up sandpit in Shepherd’s Bush? What would be the reaction if the producer had then justified this on the grounds that actually filming in Afghanistan would have got the film crew killed, but that telling viewers it was filmed in Shepherd’s Bush would have ruined the atmosphere because after all – come on! -- they were making movies?
The vacuity of these responses was excelled only by the BBC’s Director-General Mark Thompson, who had the gall to suggest to a Commons committee that this was a non-story that newspapers had whipped up in revenge for the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking—and that BBC surveys showed that viewers didn’t want programmes interrupted by disclaimers.
Among the media, various commentators too sprang to the BBC’s defence with some even more astonishing arguments. One declared it was
mean and how ludicrous
to charge Sir David with falsehood -- even though she went on to describe how she herself had been with him on a previous occasion when he went to film birds in the rainforest , but when the birds failed to materialise for the benefit of the cameras other birds were filmed in a cave elsewhere and spliced into the rainforest sequence.
Another expressed fury – not with Frozen Planet but with those in the press who had attacked
‘...a completely standard and legitimate technique, openly explained on the BBC website, of filming in zoos, or the studio, images that cannot conceivably be recorded in the wild... No one who has admired these programmes can take the accusations seriously... The sheer abundance of rare and unprecedented images in these programmes dwarfs the supposed flaws their critics fixate on. For me it raises a horrible question. Is newspaper journalism a destructive enterprise?’
Exposing a deceit is a destructive exercise, eh? Of course, because this deceit was exposed by the Daily Mirror – and since the tabloids are held to be the incarnation of evil, any truths they report must be damned as an attack upon the righteous, and any lies they expose must be defended at all costs.
Even more dismaying still was the huge number of comments by readers on newspaper websites stating that indeed they didn’t care if the footage was faked because the films were so gorgeous and so who cared whether the Arctic was in fact a Dutch zoo and Sir David was a national treasure and how dare anyone attack him. Yet there are others still who have been appalled by these revelations:
'Tory MP Therese Coffey said she was one of those that ‘did believe that the extraordinary coverage of the polar bears was genuine’. She said the BBC had ‘spoilt’ the ‘fantastic’ programme, adding:
"For me I will probably never look at a BBC nature programme in the same way, [but instead] to see, was it trick cameras."'
There is more than shock in such a reaction. There is deep disappointment and even sadness. For the BBC is more than just a venerable British institution. It is an emblem of the nation. As it is with the BBC, so it is with the country. The dismissal and even defence of the BBC’s polar deceit is an emblem of a culture that no longer understands the distinction between fact and fakery. I think that for those who have understood the significance of this deception for both the BBC and for Britain, their hearts are simply broken.