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.

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The Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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