Frozen Planet "faked" polar bear birth? Oh, come off it

Natural history programmes have reconstructed things for years.

A fresh TV fakery scandal has emerged which will rock the BBC to its very core. Polar bears, those cute white, fluffy mammals who lumber around on ice, smashing seals' heads open and feasting on their very brains, have been FAKED giving birth in the Arctic. Today's Daily Telegraph has the story.

Call Russell Brand. Call Andrew Sachs's granddaughter. Call everyone you can think of. This one is going to be big! Another example of the tax-funded British Bolshevik Corporation using our hard-earned money to make a groundbreaking documentary series, the likes of which have never been seen anywhere else in the world, stretching the boundaries of natural history television. How dare they! And how dare they pretend that the widdle fwuffy powar beaw cubs were born under the Arctic snow when, in fact, the footage of them was filmed somewhere that wasn't under the Arctic snow!

Oh, come off it. Please. I wouldn't say I'm a BBC cheerleader -- they do awful things, such as hiring rentagob no-marks like Kelvin Mackenzie to spout shouty garbage in a bid to get instantly polarised, meaningless, counterproductive conflict in their TV and radio debates, for example -- but there are bigger fish, or polar bears, to fry. And when you see the kind of people who line their missiles up facing Bush House, I know which side I'm on, if I really have to take one.

Natural history programmes have reconstructed things for years. It's not been terrifically difficult to spot most of the time, either: it's not likely that you're going to get gin-clear waters in every river environment, for example, or spectacularly good lighting. The studio stuff does tend to stand out. So the polar bears were filmed in a captive environment, rather than wild animals being disturbed out in the snow? Maybe the film crew didn't want to be decapitated by a giant paw being swung at them from an angry ursine parent. Not wanting to disrupt the natural lives of increasingly endangered species -- that's another possible reason. Or maybe they tried, and it just didn't work. Do we care? Does it really matter that very much?

Just a couple more things about that Telegraph article irritate me. Firstly, we're told that BBC viewers wouldn't have known about the alleged fakery, unless they've gone to the Frozen Planet website. The BBC were so secretive about their deception that they decided to talk about it on the official website for the programme, explaining the reasons for it! And secondly, some poor hack was sent down to Sir David Attenborough's house to doorstep him and get a reaction about the polar bear "controversy". What a noble thing to do in the cause of journalism: pester an 85-year-old man outside his house. Well done for that.

If we must enter a new age in which all natural history film-makers must disclose which shots were taken out in the field, and which were taken in a captive or studio environment, so as to ensure that elderly national treasures don't get bothered on their doorsteps, then so be it. Let's ensure, for the sake of transparency, that every time a cookery show features a "reaction shot" that's filmed afterwards, that's clearly marked too; we wouldn't want to embroil the poor, naive, innocent viewers in yet more controversy, would we?

For the sake of transparency, I'm sure newspapers won't mind revealing how certain stories came to be processed, either. For example, if a TV show recreated a scene, and the hacks involved babbled: "Well it's nothing really, completely normal, but our plebby readers don't know that, and it'll get the 8,000 foam-flecked idiots who comment on everything we write about the BBC going, and give one of our terrible bloggers the chance to whine about how everyone's biased about global warming, yes you know the one I'm on about," then let's have that too, shall we?

No, I thought not.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear