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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser