Why we should all be partial to a bit of passion…
I’ve stumbled upon something that’s become a bit of a passion lately – identifying species of wildflower in the Gower, where regular readers will know I spend many a happy weekend. And last weekend, in my new role as unofficial floral ‘birder’, I found a tiny blue plant – apparently the miniature ‘sheep’s bit’ scabious – as well as the climber known as Old Man’s Beard. It was the scent that first attracted me to it – so evocative of my childhood – but it took a while to identify it (many thanks, facebook people) as the wild equivalent of our modern garden clematis.
And so, by extension, to Chris Packham. Also passionate, also wild. Is he now also threatened with losing his BBC tenure?
You might have missed news of the ongoing war between the Springwatch presenter and those with an interest in grouse shooting, including Sir Ian Botham. And though I’ve now read up widely, I’ll let you do likewise, and simply let you know that Packham’s role fronting one of my favourite BBC programmes could, theoretically, be ended.
This follows a comment he made last year in the BBC’s Wildlife magazine, in which he called the hunting and shooting lobby ‘the nasty brigade’, attracting both the attention and the ire of The Countryside Alliance, who, along with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, called for him to be sacked, and prompted a BBC enquiry.
Let’s be clear. I know at least one far–from-nasty sporting gun owner, but when it comes to the sport itself, I’m with Chris. No amount of justification – even from cricketing legends – will change my view that killing animals for sport (as championed by the Countryside Alliance) is unnecessary, anachronistic and cruel. And if doing so endangers wild species (in this case, our rarest bird of prey, the Hen Harrier) then unless such ecological rape can be 100% mitigated, it also becomes indefensible.
But that is not my point.
The call for Packham’s sacking – a PR own-goal, to my mind – is on the grounds that, as a BBC employee, he should be impartial.
But why on earth SHOULD he be impartial on such an important ecological issue? Why should any television presenter of his ilk?
The BBC obviously has a clear, constraining remit. A publicly funded broadcaster has to broadcast for the public, so, as a body, it cannot set its own agenda. Instead, it needs to represent its paymaster’s needs. And, of course, I respect and endorse that. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia – none should be given airtime, much less condoned. It’s also why I feel for them whenever elections (or indeed, brexits) come around, and the clarion cries of ‘bias!’ flood in.
But this is not that. This is programming. Filling slots in a schedule. One day baking, another music, another sport, another wildlife. And what do we want from our presenters of such programmes? Expertise. Experience. Enthusiasm. Passion. And, indeed, the BBC usually champions such attributes, particularly where issues dear to many of us are involved. Do they berate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for lambasting food production practices? Censure Panorama for bringing to light all manner of foul play? (And, indeed, fowl play. Anyone recall their grim 2003 investigation, called The Chicken Run?) Do they tone down David Attenborough for pointing out the decimation of species due to centuries of human spread and ‘progress’?
And so to this. Conservation. Human dominance over other species. The sparking interface where uniquely human desires (aka fun and money) meet planet-saving imperatives.
It’s the place where many of our brightest and most passionate naturalists reside. Yes, it may be that Packham’s comment was considered intemperate, but, since he’s toiling at that coalface, while many of us merely sympathise, I suspect he has good reason to speak as he does. And its worth mentioning again (I believe he’s already done so) that there is nothing controversial about speaking out against the wilful decimation of a non-human species for sport.
I could be quite wrong. I’m prepared to admit that. It may be that the BBC Charter has a bullet point in it that specifically forbids passion to spill into action, on pain of presenters’ P45s.
Or, to put it another way, that the job of the magic light box in the corner is to re-fashion the wild clematis, in all its rampant glory, into its much showier, more superficially pretty neighbour – nice to look at, but, ultimately scentless and disappointing. Well-behaved, but bland, without heart.
Oh, BBC, I sincerely hope not.
First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 13th August 2016