As It Happens

Producer fears BBC's Planet Earth II ignores 'disaster' facing natural world

British wildlife TV producer Martin Hughes-Games criticizes the popular new nature documentary Planet Earth II for being too much entertainment — and too little harsh reality.
A still from BBC's "Planet Earth II." (BBC Media Centre)

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The BBC's Planet Earth is a hugely popular nature documentary series. The original series, beautifully shot, and charmingly narrated by host David Attenborough, was released 10 years ago.

In December, BBC aired the highly anticipated sequel: Planet Earth II.

Like the original, Planet Earth II is already being widely praised by those who've seen it.

But Martin Hughes-Games has a different take. He is a British producer and presenter of wildlife documentary television shows. He spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about why he thinks Planet Earth and wildlife series like it actually do more harm than good for the environment.
Martin Hughes-Games thinks nature documentary series like BBC's "Planet Earth" should pay a conservation tax to fund programming that balances its "Disney" portrayal of nature. (Martin Hughes-Games/Twitter)

Helen Mann: Mr. Hughes-Games, what is your biggest concern with the Planet Earth series?

Martin Hughes-Games: My biggest concern is that it presents a kind of fantasy world, a utopia, where it's almost as if man has had no influence and tigers roam free in mighty jungles. I fear this gives people a sense of complacency about what is really going on in the natural world, which is, of course, an appalling disaster right now.

HM: You go so far as to say in a piece in The Guardian that a show like this is actually a significant contributor to the planet wide extinction of wildlife. How do you figure that is?

MHG: That's because I think people are simply not aware of what is going on. They feel when they watch these programs that everything is absolutely fine because that's what the programs give — the impression that there is no problem out there. Therefore people feel quite complacent, quite relaxed about the natural world. That's my fear. They get a lot of fantasy, but they get very, very little clarity.

HM: Do you think if a series was focused on environmental degradation as many people would watch?

MHG: Absolutely not. You make a very good point. I'm not for one moment suggesting a series like this should never be made. I think Planet Earth II is an exquisitely beautiful series. But I think we've shied too far away now. We make everything so sanitized. We just go for the entertainment. What our job is, I think, as program makers, is to think of clever ways of getting these essential points about what is really going on across, but in an exciting and an interesting way.

Because if we don't . . . for instance, in Planet Earth II, there was a lovely sequence, really memorable, exquisitely beautiful, of some lions trying to bring down a giraffe. Lions are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list. Their numbers in the '50s were estimated to be as high as 400,000 individuals in Africa. One of the latest figures estimates them at now 16,500. I think that's pretty shocking and I don't think [you get that] from the lovely sequences that you get in Planet Earth. There is no balance that ever suggests the ongoing disaster that is actually happening in the world.
Martin Hughes-Games fears that highly revered naturalist Sir David Attenborough, the narrator of BBC's Planet Earth series, is too focused on creating entertainment. (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

HM: Have you gotten any criticism for taking this public stand?

MHG: Yes I have — from the head of the BBC Natural History unit, although I think broadly he agrees with the overall points that I'm trying to make. But he did say to me, "You do realize that you are in a way, not directly, but indirectly, criticizing Sir David Attenborough." I've had the pleasure of working with David over the years and no one would question his absolute commitment to wildlife and wildlife conservation. My concern is that when he started out, all those years ago, making Life on Earth, which is back in 1979, I think he and the whole production team, they absolutely believed that they were going to make a difference. They were going to get people to see these wonders of the world and get people involved in conservation. My concern is now that we have lost the idea of actually showing people the reality and we've got involved in entertainment. I'm sure he feels that. At the end of the program he does make a plea for the wildlife, but that's right at the end of the last program. That's just not good enough in my opinion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Martin Hughes-Games.


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