I trust you’ve heard all about the controversy surrounding the BBC and its breathtaking Frozen Planet series, presented by the incomparable Sir David Attenborough. As networks in 30 countries have purchased the programmes, I hope yours is one of them and you have enjoyed, or will soon be able to enjoy, the £16million seven-part documentary, four years in the making, which focuses on life in both polar regions, Arctic and Antarctic.
In short, the controversy goes a little something like this: footage of a polar bear and her cub was shot in a Netherlands (or German, depending on which newspaper you read) zoo, in a purpose-built den, and mixed with scenes shot in the wild, giving the viewer the impression that the birth actually took place in the wild.
Sir David himself, presumably somewhat disappointed by the stupidity of so many gullible people, who had not considered that a camera positioned in a wild polar bear’s den would assuredly result in death to either cub or cameraman, if not both, remarked in response to the criticism: “Come on, we were making movies.” Filming animals in captivity is standard practice for natural history programming and the BBC asserts that there was no attempt to mislead as Attenborough’s narration was carefully worded so as not to be ambiguous. Indeed, the story behind the footage had been publicly available on the BBC’s own website for over a month and long before the scandal, predictably yet oh-so unimaginatively dubbed Polargate, appeared in the media. Irrespective of where the polar bears were filmed, it remained a truthful representation of how polar bears are born and nurtured.
Polar bears are vicious creatures, let’s not kid ourselves. Lest we forget our need to avenge the death of, and injuries to, some rather irresponsible and some would say downright inconsiderate and selfish ‘adventurers’ on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago earlier this year. Would anybody wish a pregnant polar bear be inconvenienced by nosey human beings? Surely not. They do not exist purely for our entertainment, after all. Perhaps, like me, you wonder why we should even expect to see such miracles of life. This voyeurism of ours has gone too far. A ceaseless need to know, yet do we really know anything? How the wool has been pulled over our eyes time and time again, yet petulance kicks in when we feel we are being duped on a matter of comparatively little importance.
I find the furore surrounding episode five – ‘Winter’ – so incredibly tedious and rather suspect. I accept that, as the BBC is funded by the British public through a licence fee, many feel their criticism ought to be taken seriously, and it has been quite a year for exaggerated faux outrage. Yet Frozen Planet has been the most astoundingly brilliant thing on television in years, quite possibly the finest series ever produced. In fact, it seems to me that television might as well stop right now, for clearly nothing can better this grand feat of production, complemented by a simply stunning original musical score composed by George Fenton. In glorious high definition, it has been a pleasure to watch and learn from. Those that now whine about a relative irrelevance insult the genius of spectacle captured ably and presented gracefully by an expert crew for whom the burden of expectation weighs heavily. The BBC has always made the very best natural history programmes in the world bar none.
And then there’s Attenborough, peerless, one of our favourite Davids (do tell me your favourite Attenborough moments, by the way; I suspect we’ve all grown up with this temperate man serving as the knowledgeable uncle or grandfather we would all so dearly love to spend Sunday afternoons learning from, the teacher we can all marvel at and never ever tire of), whose whispered reverence and respectful awe for the natural world has entranced us for almost six decades.
Sir David is 85. This was his first ever visit to the North Pole. Passionate and articulate, as always, it was a joy to listen to his carefully-measured commentary, to hang on to every pause in admiration at the hypnotic fluorescent green of the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, the greatest and most magical light show on Earth (sorry, Pink Floyd) or in trepidation at the sight of a pod of killer whales working collectively to torment a poor weddell seal as if it were a game, creating giant waves to wash it from the ice floes just as it thinks it has finally scrambled to safety, exhausted.
These are unforgettable, awe-inspiring scenes, the likes of which we have never before seen and might never again see. The birth of a polar bear, wherever the miracle of new life occurs, is just one of many of the series highlights and any fakery should not detract from the other sights that made us gasp, wince and chuckle in turn, such as the fluffy Adélie penguin chick, momentarily ignored by its mother, cruelly snatched and carried off into the sky by a skua; the minke whale being harried by orcas in a dramatic chase that lasted more than two hours; the comical sight of the thieving penguin, stealing stones from another’s nest, whilst careful that his should not befall the same fate.
This is what I (reluctantly) pay a licence fee for, not an endless stream of chat shows that allow the same handful of favoured, self-indulgent celebrities to promote their latest film or book; nor boorish toilet brush-headed bigots (yes, yes, I obviously mean Clarkson) to travel in luxury to all corners of the Earth to demonstrate crass wastefulness and get paid bumper salaries for doing so; nor re-runs of quirky decorate-your-house, sell-your-house, rummage-around-in-your-house-and-find-things-you-can-sell-quite-possibly-from-the-comfort-of-your-house dross. No twaddle, no tit-for-tat, just the mysterious natural world we first discovered as children, tried to imagine in our minds and never believed we would ever be able to observe.
Charming, moving, informative, entertaining, majestic and inspiring. There are easily a dozen more worthy adjectives, but I’ll leave it at that.
Are there not other more pressing matters deserved of our derision?
Two issues strike me as being more pertinent than Polargate. The first, that it was announced yet eventually denied that the series’ final episode, entitled ‘On Thin Ice’ and concerning climate change, would be dropped in some countries, including the USA, because many people object to what is considered environmentalist alarmism, of which Attenborough has been accused, and prefer to believe that climate change isn’t happening. For goodness sake, if David Attenborough says that it’s happening, it’s happening. That the BBC, to help sales, allowed the final episode to be sold to networks as an optional extra bothers me somewhat, but so do many other things. I can get over it.
The series will be narrated by Alec Baldwin in the States, broadcast next year. That also bothers me. There should be no need to replace the veteran natural historian with an albeit decent actor, but I suppose it’s another victory for style over substance.
The second issue is that, if we are to attack the BBC, why not go for Mark Thompson, Director-General since 2004, who is guilty of a much bigger crime than not declaring that approximately two minutes of footage from a series lasting some seven hours was shot at a zoo?
Now, the BBC is not FOX News, thank goodness, although you often wonder if it likes to pretend to be its more subtle little brother during mischievous moments. Thompson has been lambasted, though only in that genteel British way, for adopting a sometimes uncomfortable pro-Israeli editorial stance. He made the contemptible and cowardly, I thought, decision not to broadcast an aid appeal on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee to assist Gaza in 2009, a decision met with some disdain (see the legendary Tony Benn on BBC News 24 for inspiration) which invariably led to calls for his resignation. Few are willing to sacrifice a salary of almost £800,000-a-year, we know, and the Director-General’s 2005 diplomatic visit (charm offensive?), the first of its kind, to meet Israeli leader Ariel Sharon – an event not publicised in the UK, unsurprisingly – would indicate that Mr Thompson cares a great deal about Israel. Many considered the BBC’s declared ‘impartial’ coverage of Israel-Palestine relations at best misleading and at worst, an absolute disgrace.
This mythical neutrality seems odd when you consider how one-sided their reporting. Regardless of political leanings, civilians in Gaza were innocent victims of a humanitarian crisis caused by three weeks of air attacks and in need of aid. The BBC had two years earlier managed to broadcast a similarly politically sensitive appeal for Darfur and Chad, so the argument against bringing the plight of those in Gaza to the wider attention of the public was barely palatable. The arrogance of Thompson shone through in his blog, which you probably shouldn’t read unless you like having your intelligence thoroughly insulted.
Christopher Brooker, a known climate change denier, also accuses the BBC of impartiality, I should add at this point: this time of “pushing their global warming agenda” and for being “so flagrantly one-sided on the environment issue.”
It is this campaign to discredit environmentalists that makes me ask if Polargate is not a manufactured controversy fuelled by the self-righteous fury of the political right. The Daily Mail, killjoys that they are, tell us with the annoying sing-song tone of a gang of pre-pubescent school bullies (probably) that this is not the first time that Sir David Attenborough has been accused of misleading viewers through his wildlife documentaries. Oh, no. The rotter has only fooled us before and even used polar bears to do so, the sneak. He only showed a polar bear giving birth in 1997, which wasn’t in the Arctic at all, rather a German zoo. Similar deceit followed in 2001, regarding a lobster that was filmed in a British aquarium. Quelle horreur.
I can’t help but feel that this media mauling is retribution for Sir David offending the fossil fuel industry by speaking the language of the WWF and respected others. Christopher Brooker and others of his ilk seize any excuse to discredit those with the potential to upset the vested interests of wealthy cronies. With the Arctic accounting for around 13 per cent of undiscovered oil, as well as 30 per cent of undiscovered natural gas, there is a new oil rush if not a new (really, really) cold war. Hey, who cares about upsetting a national treasure and rubbishing his career when there’s lots of money to be made from using very large drills?
All of Attenborough’s programmes inspire me to reflect on the incredible fragility of our magnificent planet, to wonder at its many marvels and despair at how we are bent on destroying everything around us through our selfishness. I don’t care where selected scenes were filmed, I only wish that more people would realise the price we pay for our indulgence and see in these great creatures a determination to do whatever it takes to spare them from a misfortune I believe we are accelerating.
In other news, if I can be facetious, I happened upon three words I never wanted to see placed alongside one another in the same sentence today: cocoa crisis imminent. We can also discuss this tomorrow in the chatroom, which opens at 1pm (UK). This, too, is much more alarming than Polargate. Hope you can pop in.