The Martin Hughes-Games / Planet Earth Debate

I’m rather late to the party with this post, as several responses to Martin Hughes-Games supposed ‘attack’ on the BBC NHU’s Planet Earth II have already been circulating around the blogosphere. However, before the issue passes from people’s immediate (or at least secondary) thoughts I wanted to set out my position on the matter. I have found it particularly interesting how the issue seems to have divided young conservationists, part of the generation of whom more watched Planet Earth II than the X Factor final this year. For more info on this, I think that New Nature Magazine are covering it in their upcoming issue.

So, in brief, what was Martin Hughes-Games’ argument?

In essence, he said that whilst in producing Planet Earth II the BBC created a ‘glorious, spectacular and fascinating series’, it was simply ‘pure entertainment’ and lacked sufficient messages about the need for conservation and the reality of the state of nature across the world.

My response

I applaud Martin for raising the debate, for it is one that needs to be had. Personally, I would like to see the Natural History Unit having a significantly larger budget to enable them to broaden their scope of programmes and do more to highlight the plight of nature and people involved in conservation, especially in a UK context. I completely take on board Martin’s point that programmes such as Planet Earth II can be dangerous in placing the focus more on entertainment than conservation, perhaps offering a rosier picture of the natural world than is reality and not making enough of the opportunity to hit home the required conservation messages. However, would the audience have been as large if its format had been different? In essence, it was an entertainment piece, albeit with the natural world at its heart. It wasn’t trying to be anything else surely.

The BBC of course cannot be seen to ‘campaign’ on issues, but is hitting conservation messages home a ‘campaign’ that is overwhelmingly destructive? I would argue not at all. As a public service broadcaster surely it should be its duty to inform the public of the reality of the situation. Narratives should not have the perceived negative stories airbrushed out.

If I had to pick a ‘side’ I would agree with Martin that more could have been done to hit home the conservation messages. There were of course instances where these messages came to the forefront, such as the plight of the turtles in the final episode, their life chances blighted from the outset by the advance of human settlement. Sir David often mentioned population numbers and climate change issues. However, was this enough? I would argue no.

Over the Christmas period I watched all episodes of Planet Earth I (fascinating to see how camera technology has come on in the last ten years!) and a key message I took away was the difference between this series and Planet Earth II in terms of hitting home the conservation message. The conservation narrative was far more exposed in Planet Earth I than II (as was, interestingly, the prevalence of death). Additionally, there was a brilliant three part mini series about Planet Earth: The Future which consisted of interviews with conservation professionals, television producers, scientists and Sir David himself, looking at the state of nature in detail. This could well be coming soon on the BBC (fingers crossed) but I for one certainly haven’t heard anything about it if it is due. It was a missed opportunity to do something similar directly after the main series of PEII.

Television continues to be a huge opportunity as a medium to encourage changes in attitudes towards the natural world and to inform people as to what they could do on a practical and personal level to help the conservation movement and why they should consider doing so. Opportunities to do this don’t come much bigger that Planet Earth II, with viewing figures of over 12 million at times. We should not waste these opportunities.

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