Beeb legend's halo on ice after 'faked' birth
But the row over the BBC's Frozen Planet using staged scenes mustn't be allowed to eclipse Sir David Attenborough's magisterial achievement, says Don Anderson
Poor Sir David Attenborough. Up until recently he was the symbol of television perfection, the embodiment of what the BBC stood for, the essence of public service broadcasting.
Never, ever, was his name to be associated with the word 'fake.' The viewing public had set him on a pedestal; now in the great man's 85th year, it appeared to be knocking him down, or maybe just shaking the pedestal uncomfortably.
His apparent mistake was to capture the birth of polar bear cubs in a specially constructed hide in a zoo (inset right) instead of beneath a polar snowdrift, but to screen this footage in the acclaimed Frozen Planet series as if it had all been filmed in the wild.
I have spent a considerable part of my life in broadcast journalism. Doing so in Northern Ireland, where you live and work among the audience, taught me and colleagues a thing or two about using artifice to put a point across - no matter how well-meant.
The kerfuffle reminded me of an episode early in the Troubles. A reporter with his camera crew was filming some nefarious activity on the street when a thug, reminiscent of a dominant buffalo and with a demeanour to match, emerged from the crowd. "You're filming something that isn't happening," he snarled.
The thug was objecting to the recording of something that emphatically was happening - and this is a pertinent point.
Frozen Planet was filming an event that really does take place in the icy wastes every year, but given that these particular births were in a zoo, was Attenborough's team therefore also filming something that wasn't happening?
Some of the BBC's justification of its position has been clumsy. BBC Director General Mark Thompson has suggested to MPs that the newspaper coverage over faked wildlife documentaries is red-top Press seeking revenge for the broadcaster's coverage of phone-hacking. "I do wonder whether this was about polar bears, or Lord Leveson and other matters," he's reported as saying.
Sorry, Mr Thompson, but that assertion is rubbish; a facile defence which the work of the BBC wildlife unit neither needs nor deserves.
Attenborough himself did not seem to appreciate why some viewers were annoyed. Speaking on ITV1's This Morning, he said: "If you had tried to put a camera in the wild in a polar bear den, she would either have killed the cub or the cameraman, one or the other."
Possibly both, Mr Attenborough, but this is to miss the point. Viewers understand that getting cameras into some situations is well-nigh impossible and that putting wildlife and camera people in danger for the sake of pictures is unacceptable. (The same held true for filming certain situations in Northern Ireland.)
The problem lay in mixing real polar footage with zoo scenes. And so, the documentary-makers tricked the audience into believing the pictures were taken by cameramen in sub-zero wilderness.
Attenborough at last began to eschew obfuscation when he said: "It's not falsehood and we don't keep it secret, either." That was only technically true.
The zoo filming was declared on the Frozen Planet website, which only a fraction of the TV audience would have seen. Attenborough said that explaining zoo shots during the show's commentary would have ruined the atmosphere.
Really? If that was the case, why did every programme end with a fascinating exposure of just how some of the truly remarkable shots were achieved?
We saw cameramen plunging into the sea through ice holes and swimming where ice denied them the quick safety of surfacing. We saw them descending into ice caves and dealing with tents breaking away on ice shelves.
This addendum would have reinforced the impression that everything within the programme was of such a nature. If these revelations did not ruin the atmosphere, neither would have coming clean about the shots that were impossible in the wild.
This nonsense could so easily have been avoided. Ten years ago, the Blue Planet series, also narrated by Attenborough, got itself into very similar trouble. It was a superb series, which discovered 10 unknown species of fish.
This was partially-obscured by the revelation that a sequence of lobsters spawning in the Atlantic off Nova Scotia was actually filmed in an aquarium.
At the time, a BBC spokesman said: "The sequence was taken at Anglesey Sea Zoo. It would have been unethical and physically impossible to shoot this process in the wild." He added that the sequence was "in no way fake".
The BBC has not analysed accurately the nature of the problem. It is labelling - a simple issue to be easily addressed. And when they sort it out, then the brilliance and innovation of these outstanding programmes will not be eclipsed by trivial concerns.
Frozen Planet and the other series were indeed filming what was happening but, very occasionally, not quite the way they pretended.
There are greater sins. Attenborough and the team did a magnificent job.