The Appeasers: David Attenborough and the BBC

I don’t watch nature and wildlife programmes. I must be one of the few people in the country who didn’t watch a single episode of the Blue Planet series and I didn’t regret it for a second, even after the final episode kicked off a massive public response to the issue of plastic pollution.

It’s not that I’m overly irritated by these programmes’ habitual cloying smugness; it’s just that I’m bored by them.

So I paid little attention when I saw that in his Guardian column George Monbiot had hit out at the sacred icon that is Sir David Attenborough. Fortunately, I had a second chance to read the article on Monbiot’s own website and I’m very glad that I did.

“Complacency, confusion and ignorance”

Claiming that the Blue Planet’s coverage of plastic “made a complete dog’s breakfast of the issue” is a secondary charge in Monbiot’s overall indictment that “by downplaying and misrepresenting our environmental crisis, David Attenborough and the BBC have generated complacency, confusion and ignorance.”

The article makes a compelling case and, in some ways a rather sad one, because it acknowledges what Attenborough’s work means to a lot of people, including Monbiot himself.

“I have always been entranced by David Attenborough’s wildlife programmes, but astonished by his consistent failure to mount a coherent, truthful and effective defence of the living world he loves. His revelation of the wonders of nature has been a great public service. But withholding the knowledge we need to defend it is, I believe, a grave disservice.”

The charge sheet is relentless:

–  “Knowingly creating a false impression of the world: this is a serious matter. It is more serious still when the BBC does it, and yet worse when the presenter is “the most trusted man in Britain”.

– “His new series, Dynasties, will mention the pressures affecting wildlife, but Attenborough makes it clear that it will play them down. To do otherwise, he suggests, would be “proselytising” and “alarmist”. …..In light of the astonishing rate of collapse of the animal populations he features, alongside most of the rest of the world’s living systems, and when broadcasting as a whole has disgracefully failed to represent such truths, I don’t think such escapism is appropriate or justifiable.”

– A previous series, The Truth about Climate Change was in Monbiot’s view “a total disaster… It told us nothing about the driving forces behind climate breakdown. The only mention of fossil fuel companies was as part of the solution: “the people who extract fossil fuels like oil and gas have now come up with a way to put carbon dioxide back under ground.” Apart from the general “we”, the only distinct force identified as responsible was the “1.3 billion Chinese”. That a large proportion of Chinese emissions are caused by manufacturing the goods we buy was not mentioned. The series immediately triggered a new form of climate denial: I was bombarded with people telling me there was no point in taking action in Britain, because the Chinese were killing the planet.”

– “If Attenborough’s environmentalism has a coherent theme, it is shifting the blame away from powerful forces and onto either society in general or the poor and weak.

BBC’s systemic appeasement

Monbiot is scathing about the BBC’s attitude to environmental issues which he sees as “actively hostile” and accuses wildlife filmmakers of cultivating “complacency, not action” even though they know that “the effort to portray what looks like an untouched ecosystem becomes harder every year. They have to choose their camera angles ever more carefully to exclude the evidence of destruction, travel further to find the Edens they depict.”

David Attenborough is 92, so what will happen when he is no longer a presence on our screens? Will the BBC continue to peddle what Monbiot calls “a false story, creating a fairytale world which persuades us that all is well, in the midst of an existential crisis”? Or will they start to tell the real story about how our behaviour, our economy, our society structures and vested interests is destroying the natural world we all find so wondrous and planetary systems we depend on?

George Monbiot believes that the BBC has done more to frustrate environmental action in this country than ExxonMobil. I don’t know about that, but I do think the BBC’s failure to hold the light to corporate and political vested interests and its fostering of our personal complacency about the environmental crisis we face is an act of appeasement greater than anything since the 1930s.

Monbiot says of David Attenborough that “you do not remain a national treasure by upsetting powerful vested interests”. In truth I’m not fussed about such “national treasures” but I am about national public service broadcasting and its well past the time that the BBC ditched complacency and appeasement and started some upsetting.

Lawrence Woodward

11th November 2018