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
John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.