National Geographic, still from the film 'Jane'
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The nature films that ask us who we are and what we want to be

Two recent nature documentaries suggest that saving species from extinction means looking more closely at ourselves.

What is it that we’re after when we watch animals on film? Is it a sense of wonder at the otherness of their worlds - or surprise at their similarities to our own? The recent Blue Planet II series offered its audiences both; from the deep-sea’s fangtooth fish, to the wily octopus who outwitted a shark. Yet still, for some viewers, there was something missing.

For journalist George Monbiot, that something was a lack of detail about how we can reverse the present, catastrophic environmental decline: “We kept being told that everything could be better if ‘we’ change. But change what? Where? How?” he tweeted after the final episode.

For me, it was something less tangible. I not only wanted to feel awe and sympathy for this wide-eyed animal world, but to understand why I feel that way. Can animals feel these things too? And what exactly will be lost if their worlds disappear for good?

Thankfully the wider documentary food chain has been reaching into these murkier depths. In particular, a new documentary biopic, Jane, about the 83 year-old primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace, Jane Goodall, offers a tender and telling insight into what it is to be human — and suggests it is perhaps more animal than we’ve been led to think. 

The film’s archive footage, arranged by director Brett Morgan and sublimely scored by the composer Philip Glass, re-tells the story of Goodall's life; starting with her decision, aged just 26, to travel to the Tanzanian jungle to study chimps.

Tall, blond and dressed in practical khaki shorts and a white shirt, we watch the young Jane pick her way through the jungle thicket. Her clambering movements are both self-assured and slightly awkward, as if conscious of being closely watched. Yet there is nothing tentative about her discoveries, which went on to prove that humans are not alone in their ability to make tools, experience complex emotions and even wage war.

Breaking the scientific consensus around these issues was far from easy, we discover, but she persisted: “The more I learned, the more I realised how like us they were,” her voiceover recalls.

And just as Jane's research rests upon relationships, sensitivity and openness, so too does the film.

As the story unfolds, we watch Jane fall for Hugo van Lawick, the wildlife filmmaker whom National Geographic sent to document her work. The two animal-lovers soon start an unorthodox family together after Jane gives birth to a baby boy, living among the chimps at her research centre in Gombe National Park. And when Jane starts taking child-rearing tips from Flo, the alpha female in her study, it seems as if the two storylines – Jane's and the chimps’ - have finally converged.

Another convergence is that between Lawick's vision and our own. As his camera watches Jane who watches the chimps, the film creates a powerful reminder of the close ties between loving and looking; of paying attention to something to the point of deeper understanding and connection - even if, like Hugo and Jane's, those relationships don't always work out.

The film also avoids falling foul of the mistake made by much of the press at the time — which focused too much on Jane, and played up her looks at the expense of her credibility.

Instead, it slowly and subtly shifts our attention to the chimp family; not conflating non-human with human, but recognising their equal claim to selfhood. In fact by the time the credits roll, it is their triumphs and traumas, even more than Jane's, which carry the film's emotional might.

Some may quibble that Jane does not, as with Blue Planet, spend enough time looking at the multiple threats that chimps now face, from deforestation and poaching, to climate change. But its storytelling may yet make better political animals of us all, and the film is now the first National Geographic documentary ever to be nominated for a BAFTA.

It contrasts sharply with the approach taken by another recently released documentaryThe Last Animalsby war-photographer Kate Brooks, which tackles the harm humanity is doing to the natural world head-on.

Brooks' film is a brutally direct examination of the rise of the modern poaching crisis, from the international poaching and trafficking syndicates who run the illegal trade, to the park rangers who risk their lives to stop them. 

The statistics behind the film are terrifying: the West African black rhino is already extinct, and there are only 400,000 African elephants, the largest creature to walk the earth, left in the whole continent; down 60 per cent since 2002.

But despite it's more direct approach, The Last Animals shares Jane's insights into the human sides of the story.

At one point, Professor Wasser, a forensics expert at the University of Washington, nearly breaks down on screen as he shows Brooks a cabinet filled with thousands of tiny plastic jars, each one containing the DNA from the ivory of a dead elephant. 

In another scene, a group of conservationists attempt to protect a rhino from poachers by sedating it and cutting away its horn — but the animal responds badly and dies, leaving those involved visibly distraught.

Most unbearable of all, is the death of four park rangers at the hands of a poaching gang during the course of the film’s production. To have someone there and then simply not is the cruel truth of the crisis for animals and humans alike.

Yet the film is also far from hopeless. Professor Wasser’s forensic science is already helping to bring the trade’s criminal networks to justice. “We need to stop the killing - and while curbing demand [for ivory] is critical, it is far too slow,” he explains to me over the phone. “We need to be focusing our efforts on law enforcement and getting to these products before they go to transit.”

Speaking in a Q&A at Bloomsbury Curzon, the director Kate Brooks also encouraged the audience to visit a website which gives details of the UK government’s recent consultation on a full ivory ban.

The lesson from these two evnironmental films is not necessarily that that a human-focus always works: a recent documentary called Trophy, about the appetite for big-game hunting, risks gawping at the hunters’ behaviour and not properly interrogating the industry’s position and facts.

But as the BBC promises a new landmark wildlife series, following animals in their family groups, they will hopefully not squeeze the human side of the story too far out of shot.

As much as they open a window on the animal world, great nature films must also ask who we are and who we want to be. As both Jane and The Last Animals suggest, saving species from extinction may depend on looking more closely at ourselves.

Jane is currently in cinemas and will be screened on the National Geographic Channel on the 12th March.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

An artist's version of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on the communists. CREDIT: DEZAIN UNKIE/ ALAMY
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The art of the big lie: the history of fake news

From the Reichstag fire to Stalin’s show trials, the craft of disinformation is nothing new.

We live, we’re told, in a post-truth era. The internet has hyped up postmodern relativism, and created a kind of gullible cynicism – “nothing is true, and who cares anyway?” But the thing that exploits this mindset is what the Russians call dezinformatsiya. Disinformation – strategic deceit – isn’t new, of course. It has played a part in the battle that has raged between mass democracy and its enemies since at least the First World War.

Letting ordinary people pick governments depends on shared trust in information, and this is vulnerable to attack – not just by politicians who want to manipulate democracy, but by those on the extremes who want to destroy it. In 1924, the first Labour government faced an election. With four days to go, the Daily Mail published a secret letter in which the leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev heralded the government’s treaties with the Soviets as a way to help recruit British workers for Leninism. Labour’s vote actually went up, but the Liberal share collapsed, and the Conservatives returned to power.

We still don’t know exactly who forged the “Zinoviev Letter”, even after exhaustive investigations of British and Soviet intelligence archives in the late 1990s by the then chief historian of the Foreign Office, Gill Bennett. She concluded that the most likely culprits were White Russian anti-Bolsheviks, outraged at Labour’s treaties with Moscow, probably abetted by sympathetic individuals in British intelligence. But whatever the precise provenance, the case demonstrates a principle that has been in use ever since: cultivate your lie from a germ of truth. Zinoviev and the Comintern were actively engaged in trying to stir revolution – in Germany, for example. Those who handled the letter on its journey from the forger’s desk to the front pages – MI6 officers, Foreign Office officials, Fleet Street editors – were all too ready to believe it, because it articulated their fear that mass democracy might open the door to Bolshevism.

Another phantom communist insurrection opened the way to a more ferocious use of disinformation against democracy. On the night of 27 February 1933, Germany’s new part-Nazi coalition was not yet secure in power when news started to hum around Berlin that the Reichstag was on fire. A lone left-wing Dutchman, Marinus van der Lubbe, was caught on the site and said he was solely responsible. But Hitler assumed it was a communist plot, and seized the opportunity to do what he wanted to do anyway: destroy them. The suppression of the communists was successful, but the claim it was based on rapidly collapsed. When the Comintern agent Gyorgy Dimitrov was tried for organising the fire, alongside fellow communists, he mocked the charges against him, which were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Because it involves venturing far from the truth, disinformation can slip from its authors’ control. The Nazis failed to pin blame on the communists – and then the communists pinned blame on the Nazis. Dimitrov’s comrade Willi Münzenberg swiftly organised propaganda suggesting that the fire was too convenient to be Nazi good luck. A “counter-trial” was convened in London; a volume called The Brown Book of the Reichstag Fire and Hitler Terror was rushed into print, mixing real accounts of Nazi persecution of communists – the germ of truth again – with dubious documentary evidence that they had started the fire. Unlike the Nazis’ disinformation, this version stuck, for decades.

Historians such as Richard Evans have argued that both stories about the fire were false, and it really was one man’s doing. But this case demonstrates another disinformation technique still at work today: hide your involvement behind others, as Münzenberg did with the British great and good who campaigned for the Reichstag prisoners. In the Cold War, the real source of disinformation was disguised with the help of front groups, journalistic “agents of influence”, and the trick of planting a fake story in an obscure foreign newspaper, then watching as the news agencies picked it up. (Today, you just wait for retweets.)

In power, the Nazis made much use of a fictitious plot that did, abominably, have traction: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged text first published in Russia in 1903, claimed to be a record of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world – not least by means of its supposed control of everyone from bankers to revolutionaries. As Richard Evans observes, “If you subject people to a barrage of lies, in the end they’ll begin to think well maybe they’re not all true, but there must be something in it.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler argued that the “big lie” always carries credibility – an approach some see at work not only in the Nazis’ constant promotion of the Protocols but in the pretence that their Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 was spontaneous. (It is ironic that Hitler coined the “big lie” as part of an attack on the Jews’ supposed talent for falsehood.) Today, the daring of the big lie retains its force: even if no one believes it, it makes smaller untruths less objectionable in comparison. It stuns opponents into silence.

Unlike the Nazis, the Bolshevik leaders were shaped by decades as hunted revolutionaries, dodging the Tsarist secret police, who themselves had had a hand in the confection of the Protocols. They occupied the paranoid world of life underground, governed by deceit and counter-deceit, where any friend could be an informer. By the time they finally won power, disinformation was the Bolsheviks’ natural response to the enemies they saw everywhere. And that instinct endures in Russia even now.

In a competitive field, perhaps the show trial is the Soviet exercise in upending the truth that is most instructive today. These sinister theatricals involved the defendants “confessing” their crimes with great
sincerity and detail, even if the charges were ludicrous. By 1936, Stalin felt emboldened to drag his most senior rivals through this process – starting with Grigory Zinoviev.

The show trial is disinformation at its cruellest: coercing someone falsely to condemn themselves to death, in so convincing a way that the world’s press writes it up as truth. One technique involved was perfected by the main prosecutor, Andrey Vyshinsky, who bombarded the defendants with insults such as “scum”, “mad dogs” and “excrement”. Besides intimidating the victim, this helped to distract attention from the absurdity of the charges. Barrages of invective on Twitter are still useful for smearing and silencing enemies.


The show trials were effective partly because they deftly reversed the truth. To conspire to destroy the defendants, Stalin accused them of conspiring to destroy him. He imposed impossible targets on straining Soviet factories; when accidents followed, the managers were forced to confess to “sabotage”. Like Hitler, Stalin made a point of saying the opposite of what he did. In 1936, the first year of the Great Terror, he had a rather liberal new Soviet constitution published. Many in the West chose to believe it. As with the Nazis’ “big lie”, shameless audacity is a disinformation strategy in itself. It must have been hard to accept that any regime could compel such convincing false confessions, or fake an entire constitution.

No one has quite attempted that scale of deceit in the post-truth era, but reversing the truth remains a potent trick. Just think of how Donald Trump countered the accusation that he was spreading “fake news” by making the term his own – turning the charge on his accusers, and even claiming he’d coined it.

Post-truth describes a new abandonment of the very idea of objective truth. But George Orwell was already concerned that this concept was under attack in 1946, helped along by the complacency of dictatorship-friendly Western intellectuals. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he warned in his essay “The Prevention of Literature”, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on pain of damnation, but on the other hand they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.”

A few years later, the political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that Nazis and Stalinists, each immersed in their grand conspiratorial fictions, had already reached this point in the 1930s – and that they had exploited a similar sense of alienation and confusion in ordinary people. As she wrote in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” There is a reason that sales of Arendt’s masterwork – and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four – have spiked since November 2016.

During the Cold War, as the CIA got in on the act, disinformation became less dramatic, more surreptitious. But show trials and forced confessions continued. During the Korean War, the Chinese and North Koreans induced a series of captured US airmen to confess to dropping bacteriological weapons on North Korea. One lamented that he could barely face his family after what he’d done. The pilots were brought before an International Scientific Commission, led by the eminent Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, which investigated the charges. A documentary film, Oppose Bacteriological Warfare, was made, showing the pilots confessing and Needham’s Commission peering at spiders in the snow. But the story was fake.

The germ warfare hoax was a brilliant exercise in turning democracy’s expectations against it. Scientists’ judgements, campaigning documentary, impassioned confession – if you couldn’t believe all that, what could you believe? For the genius of disinformation is that even exposure doesn’t disable it. All it really has to do is sow doubt and confusion. The story was finally shown to be fraudulent in 1998, through documents transcribed from Soviet archives. The transcripts were authenticated by the historian Kathryn Weathersby, an expert on the archives. But as Dr Weathersby laments, “People come back and say ‘Well, yeah, but, you know, they could have done it, it could have happened.’”

There’s an insidious problem here: the same language is used to express blanket cynicism as empirical scepticism. As Arendt argued, gullibility and cynicism can become one. If opponents of democracy can destroy the very idea of shared, trusted information, they can hope to destabilise democracy itself.

But there is a glimmer of hope here too. The fusion of cynicism and gullibility can also afflict the practitioners of disinformation. The most effective lie involves some self-deception. So the show trial victims seem to have internalised the accusations against them, at least for a while, but so did their tormentors. As the historian Robert Service has written, “Stalin frequently lied to the world when he was simultaneously lying to himself.”

Democracy might be vulnerable because of its reliance on the idea of shared truth – but authoritarianism has a way of undermining itself by getting lost in its own fictions. Disinformation is not only a danger to its targets. 

Phil Tinline’s documentary “Disinformation: A User’s Guide” will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm, 17 March