Attenborough Under Fire

An article written by Martin Hughes-Games attacking the Planet Earth II series has provoked great controversy in wildlife and conservation circles. It has been billed as an attack on 90-year old Sir David Attenborough (a cardinal sin in the wildlife world), and his views have been derided by many. To many of us Attenborough is our god- the person whom inspired many of us to pursue education and careers in this field, and thus criticism of the great man genuinely hurts. It feels unpalatable, like when people (quite rightly) point out some of Churchill’s (voted our greatest Briton) awful mistakes. Whilst I disagree entirely with his claim that ‘I fear this series, and other’s like it, have become a disaster for the world’s wildlife’, Hughes-Games does, unfortunately, have a point.


Hughes-Games (left), with fellow AutumnWatch presenters Michelle Strachan (central) and Chris Packham (right). 


Hughes-Games is wrong in places. He states that: ‘The justification, say the programme makers, is that if people (the audience) become interested in the natural world they will start to care about the natural world, and will be more likely to want to get involved in trying to conserve it. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense’. He then uses figures from ZSL about nature’s ‘58%’ decline since 1970, stating that because this period runs parallel with Attenborough’s tenure as a living deity since Life on Earth began in 1979, then the programmes should have had an effect on it.


A young Attenborough during filming for Life on Earth (1979). 


The first rule of science is that correlation does not equal causation, and Hughes-Games ignores it here. That there has been a recorded 58% decline in vertebrate populations worldwide has squarely nothing to do with the BBC, with wildlife filmmaking and certainly nothing to do with Sir David Attenborough. That scientific evidence says absolutely nothing of the effectiveness of Attenborough’s programmes, as he tries to imply. Hughes-Games sweeping assertion that the NHU’s programmes haven’t inspired people to get involved in conservation is utterly erroneous.

Whilst it would be easy to sweep that aside anecdotally, I’ve carried out a very brief poll of ‘A Focus On Nature‘, an absolutely brilliant, 1800 strong community of young ecologists and conservationists trying to make their way in the conservation world.

‘Did David Attenborough, and the BBC Natural History Unit programmes help inspire you to pursue a conservation/wildlife/environment-based career?’


Breakdown of 52 individual Votes from ‘A Focus On Nature’ 


I had 52 responses in an hour, and it is evident that the results clearly show that Attenborough and wildlife documentaries have helped in some form to inspire a generation of environmentalists, naturalists and scientists to work in their respective fields. If I were to ask anyone on my Geography course, on on Environmental Sciences, Zoology, Conservation and Biology courses who their inspiration was, I doubt the word ‘Attenborough’ would be far from anyone’s lips.

Percentage Breakdown of ‘A Focus On Nature’ Votes


In this instance, then, Hughes-Games is evidently misguided.

Where he is right, however, is that it is time for a paradigm shift in wildlife filming, and the BBC Natural History Unit is not excepted from that. When Hughes-Games writes that ‘the fantasy should be balanced by reality’, he is absolutely on the money. Recent NHU documentary series have focused on either animal behaviour or locations-remember the amazing ‘Shark’, ‘The Hunt’, ‘Africa’ and ‘Patagonia’? There has been mention of human issues in these documentaries, and brief coverage, but not enough has been done to expose the size of problems on a global scale, or even within these locations. Like Hughes-Games said, the NHU should of course continue to make these jaw-dropping documentaries showcasing the beauty of the natural world, and covering the various developments in zoological and ecological science- there is no need for them to stop.


Attenbo rhino.jpg
Perhaps the most touching moment of the Africa series was Attenborough with the orphaned baby Rhino- but does anyone remember it for the poaching, or for the cuteness? 


There is room for a new type of programme, however, that demonstrates the scale of the issues facing the natural world. The NHU tried something similar a long time ago in 2000 with State of the Planet, long before the era of HD, 4K and drone videography we are in at the moment. We need documentaries to expose deforestation, reveal the cost of pollution and to look at poaching in all its grisly detail. Wildlife documentaries are traditionally things of beauty, but I’d argue that we now need documentaries to be ugly, to shock too. Perhaps this requires a different breed of videographers and directors to take this more confrontational approach, but we certainly now have the technology for it. Drones are fantastic tools for showcasing the scale of deforestation, for example.


Deforestation for Pulp & Paper in Riau
 A Greenpeace image showing just how effective Drones can be at capturing the scale of deforestation. 


Whilst these documentaries will be difficult, it has be done and with great success. Virunga, the tale of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern National Park as it struggles to fight against poachers, the SOCO oil corporation and the M23 rebel offensive is a fantastic, award-winning example. The earlier Blackfish and The Cove are perhaps the other two stand-out wildlife/nature documentaries in this genre, whilst the more recent Ivory Game is another fantastic watch. Only Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood has tried to illustrate the scale of global issues however, with impressive results.

There is an argument to suggest that perhaps the success of the Plant Earth series amongst others is due to the very same utopian ‘escapism’ that Hughes-Games so despises, but I don’t think that is good enough anymore. In the face of rapid deforestation with no quarter given for habitat and wildlife, coral reef bleaching on an unprecedented level and significant climatic change, it is time for our wildlife documentaries to take the gloves off, and show the real world to the public. Will it work? There’s only one way to find out.

That Hughes-Games has written this timely article is a good thing, as it has sparked a healthy, impassioned debate around wildlife filmmaking and it’s purpose. Ultimately, whilst poor Attenborough doesn’t really need to be in the article, would anyone have read it if he wasn’t? 



4 thoughts on “Attenborough Under Fire

    1. Great blog and similar indeed! I’d love to see some more powerful stuff coming from the NHU, though I imagine getting a country to allow you to film the ‘bad stuff’ is easier said than done- Malaysia for example.
      Perhaps that’s where people like us come in- or maybe we need clandestine documentary teams. The latter sounds fun.


  1. Great piece Bill

    (UK) Documentary makers are always keen to point the finger at (relatively) parochial issues such as benefit fraud as it makes for the intended titillation of the target audience but never has a series of high profile examples been made of the true threat to the future of the planet as we know it, and therefore the human future. It would offend both the viewer and those in power.

    Get out there and do it lad. I’m sure Sir David would welcome a young, forward-thinking co-host with your drive!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think there are a lot of technical and bureaucratic issues related to such documentaries (and sometimes it is hard to show the change), but these shouldn’t ever become restrictive obstacles. If someone doesn’t want you to show something, it probably means that it needs to be shown in the first place!

      I’d love to, but I fear the road to Attenborough nirvana is in the past now. Perhaps there won’t be an Attenborough replacement, and it’ll just be Backshall, Packham and co until the end of time.


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