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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war