Natural History — a Morality Tale

by | Nov 15, 2011

I have no idea about the truth of a story in the Telegraph today. As usual, however, I find that the way the facts — whatever they are — are treated is more interesting than the reality.

BBC drops Frozen Planet’s climate change episode to sell show better abroad
The BBC has dropped a climate change episode from its wildlife series Frozen Planet to help the show sell better abroad.

Hmmm. Okay, I am wondering if it is true now. You have to wonder…

British viewers will see seven episodes, the last of which deals with global warming and the threat to the natural world posed by man. However, viewers in other countries, including the United States, will only see six episodes. The environmental programme has been relegated by the BBC to an “optional extra” alongside a behind-the-scenes documentary which foreign networks can ignore.

So I’m wondering, now, did the BBC put out a press release saying ‘you don’t have to buy the seventh episode — it’s an optional extra, for non-climate sceptics’? I find it hard to imagine. So where did the story come from?

Campaigners said the decision not to incorporate the episode on global warming as part of the main package was “unhelpful”. They added that it would allow those countries which are sceptical of climate change to “censor” the issue.

Others suggested that the Corporation should have offered “On Thin Ice”, the global warming episode, for free due to the importance of the issue.

Ahhh. Campaigners. You see, it probably wasn’t an issue…

However, the BBC said it was standard practice to offer international clients only the parts they wished to purchase.

… until the campaigners turned it into one. And, moreover, until the Telegraph indulged them.

A spokeswoman for the BBC said it was not be feasible to force networks to buy the climate change episode as it features Sir David talking extensively to the camera and there are many countries where he is not famous. Many environmentalists are ardent fans of the show for highlighting the fragile beauty of the natural world.

Fragile beauty? This is the myth of ‘fragile beauty’. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, after all. And in much the same way, so is fragility. It’s not until you believe that the world is ‘fragile’ that change and ‘destruction’ become equivalents. Environmentalists presuppose ‘balance’ in the world. Thus, any change can only be explained in terms of a destructive agent — humanity. It’s this idea of fragility and balance that leads to ideas about ‘tipping points’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘gaia’. That’s not to say that the changes seen in the Arctic are neither problematic, nor our fault, but that the idea of ‘fragility’ precedes a treatment of the facts, and precludes a sensible debate about them. Hence, there are some angry voices about the fact that broadcasters are free to buy the episodes they desire. The Telegraph quotes a number of such angry voices,

Harry Huyton, the head of climate change for the RSPB, said: “Selling Frozen Planet in two parts seems rather unhelpful because it suggests that it would be perfectly reasonable not to show the bit with the climate message.

“We would encourage the networks that haven’t bought the whole thing to think again and not to censor the issue.”

Tony Juniper, an environmental adviser and former head of Friends of the Earth, said: “It raises questions about the BBC’s overall environmental coverage, which is patchy and inconsistent.”

He added that the BBC’s attitude allowed other countries to opt out of the climate change episodes for “political reasons” or because they had already covered the issue with previous programmes.
A spokesman for Greenpeace, the environmental group, said: “It’s a bit like pressing the stop button on Titanic just as the iceberg appears.

“Climate change is the most important part of the polar story, the warming in the Arctic can’t be denied, it’s changing the environment there in ways that are making experts fearful for the future.”

It’s not clear how Toby Juniper has determined that the BBC’s coverage of the environment is ‘patchy and inconsistent’. The ‘science and nature’ pages of BBC’s iplayer site reveal that the BBC is pretty keen on reporting from the natural world. Moreover, as recent controversies over the Jones report, and Richard Black’s instructions to his juniors reveals, the BBC takes a pretty dim view of climate scepticism. As I’ve argued before, greens’ lack of sense of proportion is made up for by their sense of persecution. Huyton’s allusion to ‘censorship’ is picked up by Business Green’s James Murray, who is ‘none too impressed with the BBC’s decision to censor its nature documentary for foreign audiences

Unsurprisingly, (and this is more the fault of the scientific and political community than the BBC), 10 of the 30 networks to buy the show have opted for the censored version. There is no prize for guessing the US is among those markets where TV execs have decided they do not like scientific reality to impinge upon their inspiring nature footage.

Censorship? Censorship? Really? I bought a Sunday paper this weekend, but decided to leave the supplements at the newsagents, as I wasn’t interested in them, and I had a fairly long walk up a hill home. Was I censored? I freely made a decision not to take the parts of the paper I didn’t want with me. The shopkeeper agreed to keep them, and dispose of them himself. In much the same way, the BBC, as seems to be normal practice, offers its series in parts, to broadcasters, so that they can freely chose to screen what they wish.

Where is the censorship?

‘Censorship’, in its day-to-day usage, means an official intervention, to prevent the broadcast of material. But we see now that, in the strange moral universe created by environmentalists, ‘censorship’ has been somewhat transformed. Censorship is now the failure to broadcast the official account of something. That is to say that if you don’t broadcast something which environmentalists tell you that you should broadcast, you are censoring. In other words, environmentalists have precisely inverted the meaning of ‘censorship’. This is amazing, not least because ‘censorship’ is something we typically equate to the ‘Orwellian’ use of language, and now we see the word ‘censorship’ itself being subject to revision along the lines of ‘newspeak’. But perhaps this dystopia is a better account of what environmentalists have in mind…

Perhaps this is a bit of an over-reaction. Nobody is forcing our eyes open, and holding our head to the screen. Yet. But the point remains, environmentalists seem to believe that exposure to their narrative, over images of change will provoke a change in the audience’s moral conscience. Moreover, we shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy the stunning photography, or images of the cryosphere in general,
without being told the story of climate change.

Natural history, then, becomes a morality tale. Or perhaps worse, a secular creation myth. Rather than ‘censorship’, the word James Murray and Harry Huyton were searching for was ‘blasphemy’. To show images of the Arctic without the sermon would be to puritans what the godless celebration of Christmas and Easter is, without the story of Christ: mere hedonism.

To the main point: what’s wrong with enjoying the BBC’s epic photography, for it’s own sake, eschewing the moral message? It would be hard to deny that the BBC’s natural History unit has a unique sense of spectacle, and some extremely talented staff. There is nothing wrong with it, of course, except for the fact that enjoying such images, divorced from the environmentalists’ narrative is ultimately to enjoy distance from nature. What you see, when you watch these programmes is not intrinsic beauty, but the culmination of thousands of man-hours, and £ millions of technical processes: skilled camera operators and production crews, and expensive and time consuming post-production, recolouring, re-timing, and editing the footage.

If you were actually sat at the Arctic, you would, after some moments of awe, likely become quite bored quite quickly, and yearn for home, even if it is, like mine, a flat in a fairly brutal 1970s block of cubic modernity. You would also get quite cold. And hungry. ‘Beauty’ — aesthetics in general — would become less and less of concern, and thoughts about what you’d prefer to eat would give way to actual hunger, which would force you to eat regardless of taste. You would be less concerned with the ‘fragility’ of nature than with your own imminent demise.

It’s only with such distance that natural history as a morality tale makes any sense. It’s only when were not subject of nature’s whims that nature seems to be ‘fragile’. It’s only when we’re warm and snug that we can be forced to consider what life would be like without warmth and snugness. And that’s why various greens have got their knickers in such a twist about the BBC not forcing overseas broadcasters to buy its miserable, moralising follow-up.


  1. geoffchambers

    Zapping from one favourite blog to another, I find here a solemn accusation of BBC censorship in the Arctic from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; at Harmless Sky, Alex Cull has unearthed another twitcher, Lord Krebs (whose place on the Climate Change Committee seems to be due to his scientfic expertise on birds), musing on how best to brainwash the British public into agreeing with him; while on Bishop Hill there’s a video of an hour long rant about Deniers from an expert on rhodedendrons.
    There seems to be a pattern here. The whole climate caper is beginning to look like a revenge of the nerds – a mass movement of harmless types, tired of slogging away in the backwaters of science for a pittance, suffering ridicule and cutbacks, who have discovered the cure for their ills. They’ve taken the Times Atlas bodybuilding course, and they’re going to kick sand in our faces until we switch off the central heating and mend our ways.

  2. Chilli

    Great post Ben. Them’s some home truths in the last 3 paragraphs. I’m certainly not looking forward to the final episode of Frozen Planet. The series so far has been great. Such a shame to ruin it with a load of guilt laden man-made global warming alarmism.

  3. Donna Laframboise

    Bravo! You’re absolutely right about how the term ‘censorship’ is being distorted here. Scary stuff.

  4. Jack Hughes

    Good point about “fragility” and “balance”.

    I would step back even further and shone the spotlight on the abstract idea of “the environment” – as in “please think of the environment …”.

    When you think for more than a few seconds you understand that there is no abstract environment.

    Each one of us has a tangible and different environment. My (real) environment is the inside of my house, the garden around it, my street, the local town, and the surrounding sea and countryside. In this real world there are trade offs – the tree in front of my window was too big so I cut it down. Birds are nesting in the house eaves – I like to watch them but they are damaging the house so when they are flown I will seal it up. And none of this is anyone else’s business – my house, my rules.

    The street involves trade-offs and compromises with other people – but again there is no absolute abtract “environmental” principle here. We all want the street to be pleasant and safe and if we have to prune bushes or fell trees to achieve this then that’s just how it is. It’s no-one elses business.

  5. geoffchambers

    Arctic ice is really fragile though. Every summer 10 million square kilometers of it is destroyed, turning to water. Or: Arctic seawater is fragile. Every winter, 10 million square kilometers of it is destroyed, turning to ice.
    Your attitude depends on who you are; whether you’re a polar bear bounding over the solid ice after your prey, or a seal slipping off it to safety into the water.
    If you’re neither, best to enjoy the whole thing as a spectator sport. And not get too upset if your team is on a losing streak.

  6. Jamspid

    Oh mate did they slagg into the windfarms or what BRILLIANT un bias BBC for a change

    Then just to rub it in some more someone on Points of View
    complained that the programme didnt encourage people to save eneregy and cut their footprint so they F off and can be the first ones to freeze when they cant pay their bills and get there electric cut off

    Watching that Frozen planet never realised how vicous Killer Whales actually are

  7. George Carty

    When even a malthusian bastard like Prince “I would like to be re-incarnated as a killer virus to solve the overpopulation problem” Phillip starts slagging off wind farms, it’s a sign change is in the air…

  8. alfiesaden

    hello – is it just me !! can any one explain why when i type in the yahoo browser “” i get a different site yet whe i type it in google its ok? could this be a bug in my system or is any one else having same probs ?
    alfie saden



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