Monbiot on Attenborough: Justified or Extreme?

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For those of you that don’t know already, today George Monbiot published a controversial column in the Guardian criticising the all round national treasure that is Sir David Attenborough. Monbiot states that Attenborough has “betrayed the living world he loves” after his recent interview about his new programme, Dynasties, for the Observer. My question is – is this criticism justified?

Full disclosure here, these are both men I admire for different reasons, Monbiot for his writing and willing to communicate what others find uncomfortable and Attenborough for being a huge influence on me since I was a child.

Monbiot uses a number of quotes from the Observer interview to justify his point, saying that Attenborough says fully representing environmental issues is a “turn off” when in fact what he actually said is that repeated warnings about human destruction of the natural world can be a “turn-off” for viewers. I.e. that TOO MUCH alarmism is a turn off.

The bravery to criticise someone so in the forefront of our national identity is admirable, however what I am not a fan of is extremism of any kind, and Monbiot’s article seems a little, well… extreme. And while I agree that activism and portraying things as they are is needed, there is a time and a place for this. And is it ever really appropriate to pick a fight with someone who ultimately wants the same thing?

After all Sir Attenborough may be one of the biggest and best ambassadors for the world around us, we only need look at the “blue planet effect” to note that when he says something, it makes an impact. Yes Blue Planet II could have addressed more environmental issues, but with limited screen time, you pick your battles. And yes he is most likely constrained by being employed by the BBC, as all of those of us who are not completely freelance are. We have superiors with a business agenda to answer to. And in reading Monbiot’s column, and criticism of previous programming, perhaps his beef is with the wider BBC in general?

And quite frankly, Sir David is not an overt activist, it is quite simply not what he is about, he is a nature presenter first and foremost, yes his programmes have always had an element of activism, but the focus is primarily on the dynamics between species, the ecology and the drama of the wild. Mike Gunton, the executive producer of the new Dynasties programme said:

“You want people to understand the wonder of nature. Some spin-off is that if they appreciate the wonder, then they care about it, and that’s when it brings you to your other mission – which is to make people interested, then more likely to care and conserve, and become active in saving the planet”

And this is true, nature documentaries in part have inspired me and I’m sure many others to follow a career in the environment. It is also true in my experience (actually talking to people about the environment!) people don’t like to be preached at. Is it better to be a prophet of doom or show people what is at stake and encourage them to care? You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar after all…

In an ideal world, the media would simply present us with the truth and let us make up our own minds, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in the very short time I’ve been doing my PhD is that every media organisation wants to gain readership, listeners, viewers etc, and every individual has an agenda or bias (be it conscious or otherwise). And for one Monbiot’s article has certainly re-ignited the debate. Yet I can’t help but feel that it would be more productive for two prominent figures, who obviously (in general) care about the same issues, to work together somehow… after all this is the fate of the planet we are talking about… and we are not in the schoolyard.

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