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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

question of the day: How honest must nature documentaries be?

polar bear cubs Frozen Planet

The BBC found itself in some hot water this week over its hugely popular nature documentary series Frozen Planet. From BBC News:

The BBC has denied misleading Frozen Planet viewers with footage of newborn polar bear cubs filmed in an animal park, rather than in the wild.

Episode five of the series featured the cubs in a den with their mother, with many people assuming they were born and filmed in the Arctic.

But the cubs were actually in a Dutch animal park, as revealed in behind-the-scenes footage on the show’s website.

The BBC said the filming was “standard practice” for natural history shows.

“This particular sequence would be impossible to film in the wild,” a BBC spokesperson said.

“The commentary accompanying the sequence is carefully worded so it doesn’t mislead the audience and the way the footage was captured is clearly explained on the programme website.”

Over at The Independent, commentators take both the pro and con sides. TV critic Gerard Gilbert is okay with the deception:

Perhaps we’ve just become too used to the omnipotence of the BBC Natural History Unit – of our belief in its ability to film anything anywhere. However, I sympathise with Sir David when he argues that explaining about the zoo in the commentary would have ruined the show’s atmosphere. Programmes such as Frozen Planet rely on atmosphere (something Sir David is so adept at building) as much as any drama. Why transport us all the way to the Arctic only to yank us back to an animal park in the Netherlands?

There is an enormous amount of artifice involved in gathering any “natural” scene, and of persuading the viewer at home that they are alone in the wild. It might be more grown-up if we just accepted that instead of crying “Fake!” every time a scene is not exactly as implied.

But arts editor David Lister is angry:

If Sir David is Mr Honesty, the BBC is the repository of Reithian values, and natural history programmes are exempt from all the tricks and manipulation that bedevil so-called reality on the television screens.

Now all those tenets of faith risk being destroyed. The BBC has misled its viewers and has probably unfairly besmirched the name of David Attenborough in so doing.

Its excuses are risible. The proper explanation may well have been on the website, but I don’t know anyone who watches a TV programme with their laptop on their knee, checking the programme website to be sure that they are not being misled. But thanks for the tip. I’ll try to do that in future. It’s one of the worst excuses I have ever heard from the BBC. And it sets a deeply worrying precedent. Is the message here really that programme-makers can play fast and loose provided that some sort of explanation is on the website, even if only a tiny percentage of viewers regularly peruse the website?

What do you think? Is what the BBC did okay, or should it have been more upfront about how it obtained seemingly impossible footage? How honest must nature documentaries be? Is trickery acceptable if it helps tell the story?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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