The truth about Britain’s wildlife crisis is stark: the timid BBC must let David Attenborough tell it loud and clear | Geoffrey Lean
Is there no limit to the timidity of the BBC? Bang in the middle of the row over tweeting by the widely respected Gary Lineker, it now seems to be muzzling the most trusted Briton of them all – David Attenborough.
As the Guardian reports today, it has decided not to broadcast the sixth and last programme of the veteran broadcaster’s widely hailed new series on Britain’s wildlife, in which he exposes its dramatic decline, and what has caused it. While the other five episodes of Wild Isles will go out in prime time, amid enormous hype, it will be available only to those who look for it on the BBC’s iPlayer service.
Sources say that the programme, already filmed, and entitled Saving Our Wild Isles, is being suppressed for fear of antagonising rightwing groups with “dinosaur ways”. Its showing, even on iPlayer, has already been attacked in the Daily Telegraph for being partly funded by WWF UK and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, two establishment wildlife groups, which it describes as having a “campaigning agenda”.
This is not the first time that the BBC has effectively silenced its greatest presenter who – after years of criticism for downplaying the threats to the world’s environment – has over the past decade become one the most outspoken and influential advocates of action to combat the climate crisis and preserve biodiversity. But it is likely to provoke the most outrage.
Polls show that more than four of every five Britons believe that the country’s wildlife is under threat and urgent measures are needed to protect and restore it. Well over half lament their own personal experience of declines in insects, birds, mammals and green space.
They – and Attenborough – are right. Britain has been officially revealed to be one of the worst countries in the world for the state of its biodiversity, having lost nearly half of it since the industrial revolution. And the government is doing shamefully little to tackle this.
As the Guardian reported in January, ministers were accused by their own watchdog – the Office for Environmental Protection – of failing to keep their promises to safeguard the country’s natural environment as its wildlife declined at an “eye-watering rate”. Eye-watering is right. Since the 1970s, the UK’s official State of Nature report revealed, 41% of all Britain’s species have declined, while more than a quarter of its mammals are at risk of extinction. The number of farmland birds has been cut in half over that period.
Since the 1950s, more than half of Britain’s native plant species have declined – just a few days ago they were revealed now to be outnumbered by alien species – while hedgehogs have crashed by a staggering 95% and turtle doves by 98%. In all Britain has lost more biodiversity than any other G7 nation, and is in the bottom 10% of all countries worldwide.
So what, pray, is so unacceptable about allowing Britain’s most respected figure to present these truths on national television, especially when there is already so much appetite for information about the state of Britain’s wildlife among the vast majority of those who pay its licence fee? And what is so frightful about enabling an expert with more than 70 years of accumulated knowledge about nature to suggest solutions?
Mind you, this is not the first time that has happened. David Attenborough was long condemned by environmentalists for failing to draw attention to the growing environmental crisis. In part, this was down to his own past reluctance: “I leave advocacy to [David] Bellamy,” he told me during one of our conversations on the issue.
But the BBC has also been culpable, partly out of political cowardice, and partly out of greed: a few years back, it feared that if Attenborough mentioned climate change, for example, that would inhibit overseas sales, especially in the US.
Back in 2006, an article in the Radio Times gave the game away, after criticism of the failure of his epic Planet Earth to highlight that the species it featured were being endangered. “The series grinds no political axe,” it explained, “as no programme hoping to sell to 100 countries can hope to do.” Miles Barton, a longstanding Attenborough producer, once described the anxiety: “The more preachy you are, the lower the numbers are going to be.”
The BBC is no stranger to timidity, of course. Way back in 1992, Michael Grade attacked its “enervating caution”. But this is of a different order. Putting caution above conservation on a crucial issue of such public concern would be a sad new low.
Geoffrey Lean is a specialist environment correspondent and author