For clarities sake, let us get this out of the way first: I, personally, am a fan of both the Planet Earth series and presenter Martin Hughes-Games. More fond of the former than the latter, in truth, but boasting a positive perception of both. This post is not at all intended as an attack on Martin. Though, with that said…
I was a taken aback somewhat this week when MHG took aim at Planet Earth II; setting social media ablaze as he accused natural history broadcasters of lulling viewers into a false sense of security by glossing over the woes of the natural world in favour of an enjoyable viewing experience. Openly, and rather bravely, lambasting the producers of the wildly popular BBC show for painting a false picture of the natural world and, ultimately, contributing little to the conservation of the embattled species it brings to our screens.
If the purpose of Martin’s piece was to generate debate, it was certainly successful; with many and more environmentalists discussing the Guardian piece over recent days. It was interesting and I enjoyed reading it. If only for the brief period of soul-searching which ensued upon its completion. Searching which, ultimately, did little to alter my stance on such shows; my adoration of Planet Earth and other, similar, documentaries, utterly unphased. I disagree with Martin (and others) most strongly on this matter.
In his article, MHG makes reference to a line commonly touted by broadcasters: that through showcasing the natural world in all its beauty and thus generating interest in wildlife, that more people at home will be inclined to conserve the species seen on their screens. A justification Martin labels as nonsensical yet I buy into hook, line, and sinker. For one reason alone: because of the profound effect shows such as this have had on my own life.
Of course, many things attributed to my current fascination with nature – family members, the beauty of my home county, even books – though I would be lying if I said that the sight of tigers, orca, elephants and other iconic creatures on my TV did not influence me. The beauty of such things, coupled with the unparalleled enthusiasm of Attenborough, Irwin and other childhood favourites, igniting the spark of curiosity for the wonders that lie beyond my front door. For the beauty of nature and the weird and wonderful creatures with whom we share our world. Curiosity which, later, lead me to explore the natural world for myself – propelling outwards to enjoy such things first hand; towards enjoyable encounters with wildlife which, later, attributed to a growing will to protect it. I agree fully with the BBC logic on this and I suspect many other young conservationists will too. At least in part.
That said, and while I boast sincere admiration of such documentaries, I agree with Martin that greater air-time should be dedicated to conservation. That we must present a realistic picture of what is going on in the world beyond our own ignorant bubbles. I would certainly watch shows dedicated solely to the topic of conservation and I suspect many of those reading this blog would too. Most being ecologists, nature writers or others already inspired to take up arms in defense of nature. This willingness to listen and learn does not, however, extend to all. And I suspect the vast majority of people would be turned off when faced with an hours worth of stern-faced preaching courtesy of a troubled TV naturalist.
For the vast majority of people, documentaries must “light” if they are going to have any lasting impact. They must be fun, exhilarating, breath-taking if they are to build curiosity and, almost certainly, must showcase splendor if they are to spark any sort of interest in wildlife. Something which is particularly true for younger viewers seeking thrills and action-packed spectacle – more and more of whom are currently tuning into such shows. I know that, in my youth, had I been presented with drier, less uplifting material, as opposed to the sight of hunting orca or displaying birds of paradise, my enthusiasm would have burnt out rather quickly. In this sense, I find it hard to fault Planet Earth; it provided all of this by the bucket-load, and I cannot begrudge the BBC for favouring such material. Better to inspire through spectacle, in keeping with what I mentioned above, than bore the nation senseless with a prolonged bout of worried grumbling.
Reading Martin’s rather eloquent article, another thing also sprang to mind: centered on his portrayal of Planet Earth as little other than a beautifully filmed soap opera. You would be forgiven, after reading, for believing that the show had given no mention to conservation at all and that it failed, entirely, to mention the myriad problems facing the world’s wildlife. I am pretty sure it did, and recall Sir David, on a number of occasions, highlighting the woes of the species shown during the show. Were we watching the same show Martin? The end of episode segments, in particular, giving mention to climate change, habitat loss and other problems caused by mankind. Something which goes without mentioning the sight of those turtles floundering amid the blights of human dominion over the world. I could be wrong, but surely such things count as an honest portrayal of the threats facing our wildlife?
I feel Planet Earth did dedicate time to conservation – perhaps not enough to satisfy the experts, but more than enough to inform the general public that there is, indeed, a problem. With such information presented in such a way that it did not appear preachy, nor tedious; secreted amid the uplifting sight of majestic creatures in all their glory. In a similar manner to what Springwatch does, no less, when it blends fun and serious discussion – amalgamating talk of declining hen harriers with the sight of a wood mouse deftly navigating a maze. Presenting vital information in a much more palatable manner, rife with fun and appeal. I will, however, resist the urge to point out that Martin himself works on a show that, arguably, does equally as “little for conservation”.
Ultimately, Planet Earth (and similar shows) provide a vital link to the natural world for millions, many of whom lack a great deal of nature in their daily lives. They have the potential to inspire, greatly and on a number of different levels, and remind each and every one of us, through no end of breathtaking sights, just what it is we are fighting for. Alternating between beauty and honestly in such a way to keep viewers hooked and in doing so, maintaining their potential to alter lives. Often motivating people to such an extent that they delve head-first into conservation, or, at the very least, build sympathy for the plight of our wildlife. In this sense, I feel shows such as this are important, vital even, and very much disagree with Martin Hughes-Games’s dismissive and wholly negative stance.
Image: By Jo Garbutt – Flickr: Chris, Michaela and Martin, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33044524