Saturday, 13 December 2014

Are the BBC dancing to the tune of the animal-rights activists?

 "We are very proud of Our Zoo and would like to thank all those involved...However, in order to create room for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC One drama we sometimes have to make hard choices and it will not be returning for a second series - BBC Spokesperson"

As reported in the last blog regarding the BBC television series 'Our Zoo', a number of animal-rights groups e.g. The Born Free Foundation, Captive Animal Protection Society and Wild Futures were very quick to lobby the Corporation over the use of trained animals in this series. These groups further insinuated that the company used to supply the trained animals for the series Amazing Animals had a record of cruelty. 

Whilst there is absolutely no evidence to support such claims it seems possible that the BBC has decided to collude with these groups and has cancelled a second series of this popular drama which viewed by 5 million people and was also nominated for two National Television Awards.

In a published statement the BBC said:

“We are very proud of Our Zoo and would like to thank all those involved...However, in order to create room for new shows and to keep increasing the range of BBC One drama we sometimes have to make hard choices and it will not be returning for a second series.”

The statement is somewhat vague and for what was such a popular series seems rather strange. So the question stands: are the BBC minded to side with animal-rights lobbyists?

Unfortunately looking at the BBC's track record in recent times one could conclude it is possible that they are indeed deciding to side with the views of such groups.

Those who follow this blog and the Marine Animal Welfare blog will be fully aware of the film 'Blackfish'. This partisan documentary which attacked the care and welfare of killer whales displayed at the SeaWorld theme parks. Despite being discredited on many levels groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other vociferous animal rights supporters continue to promote this dubious documentary is wholly factual.

The BBC decided to show this film on their BBC 4 strand 'Storyville' in November 2013.  Due to the controversial nature of the film (and the fact that I was aware of alternative views to its factual accuracy and its presentation of historical context) I contacted the BBC to voice my concern at a lack of balance in showing this film. 

In a subsequent email from Kate Townsend the Executive Producer of Storyville she stated:

"...Thanks for sending in your letter regarding the Storyville screening of Blackfish. We are sorry you feel it was one-sided, but in the course of production Sea World was offered an opportunity to be interviewed for the film, but decided not to participate. The aim of our strand is to show case powerful stories with a strong point of view. I am sure you appreciate that the BBC endeavours to give voice to a diversity of views across all its platforms -including the complexities of animal cognition and animal rights..."

I did not find her response particularly encouraging and therefore felt compelled to write again.  I stated the following:

Thank you for your email regarding the BBC's decision to show the documentary 'Blackfish'.

My concerns remain and it is not just I who feels the film was one sided but many other members of the zoological community share my disquiet as witnessed by the many articles and blogs that have appeared since the film was first shown.

See Blackfish and the Black Arts of Propaganda

The BBC has an obligation under its Charter to present balance and in this case, it has decided to show a film that presents a partisan position against the keeping of animals in zoos and aquariums; specifically killer whales primarily (but not exclusively) cared for at the Sea World marine parks.

I accept the BBC did not commission this documentary. However, the film is very controversial and contained many statements that are open to challenge. Therefore, some form of right to reply should have been available, if not, then the BBC seems to be taking a position that it agrees with the filmmakers.

You mention that Sea World was offered but turn down a opportunity to take part in this film as did Dawn Brancheau's family (a trainer killed in a tragic accident at Sea World in February 2010). However, this in itself is irrelevant as you as a broadcaster cannot in all honesty show a film and walk away from any obligations to show some form of editorial balance; maybe not within the programme but certainly by some form of discussion within the proximate time scale of this films broadcast.

Your own guidelines state:

6.4.25: When our output makes allegations of wrongdoing, iniquity or incompetence or lays out a strong and damaging critique of an individual or institution the presumption is that those criticised should be given a "right of reply", that is, given a fair opportunity to respond to the allegations. We must ensure we have a record of any request for a response including dates, times, the name of the person approached and the key elements of the exchange. We should normally describe the allegations in sufficient detail to enable an informed response, and set a fair and appropriate deadline by which to respond.

6.4.26: Any parts of the response relevant to the allegations broadcast should be reflected fairly and accurately and should normally be broadcast in the same programme, or published at the same time, as the allegation. There may be occasions when this is inappropriate (for legal or overriding ethical reasons) in which case a senior editorial figure, or commissioning editor for independents, should be consulted. It may then be appropriate to consider whether an alternative opportunity should be offered for a reply at a subsequent date.

In fact, Sea World has responded to the allegations made in the film in a statement to film critics at the release of 'Blackfish' and later to CNN when they broadcasted the film.

SeaWorld responds to questions about captive orcas, 'Blackfish' film

'Blackfish' film ignores SeaWorld's benefits to conservation, research

In addition, the film did not just focus on Sea World as there was a wider remit regarding the general care of zoo animals both covertly within the film and in interviews given by those who appeared in it. See my blog below for examples of this.

Blackfish's Mission Creep: Are some zookeepers turkeys wishing for Christmas?

As far as your comment "complexities of animal cognition and animal rights", this, in itself, is a worry.

In the BBC web notes it states:

"...This emotionally-wrenching, tautly-structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals..."

Unfortunately, here the writer continues to use a populist assumption that dolphins (the killer whale is the largest member of the dolphin family) are 'highly intelligent' and compounds this with the dreadful animal-right weasel word ' sentient' - a meaningless phrase that furthers nothing as regards either animal or human cognition.

I would direct you to the recent book by Dr Justin Gregg Are Dolphins Really Smart: The Mammal Behind the Myth, which dismantles the conjecture of highly developed cognition in these animals when compared with many other species; something that has been known to mainstream cetacean biologists for many years.

Moreover, as far as animal-rights are concerned, this has little or nothing to do with animal welfare, something the film pretends to be concerned about when, in fact, there is a clandestine animal-rights agenda presented.

Animal rights is a political ideology that basically states animals have the same rights as humans and should not be used in anyway; hence the recent failed efforts of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - PeTA to try and sue Sea World for slavery as regards their handful of wild caught killer whales. Please note that the majority of the whales at Sea World are captive bred and the park has not obtained animals via wild capture for over 30 years.

Animal welfare, on the other hand, is the objective scientific assessment of whether animals are being caused unnecessary suffering to which end, I direct you to the recent book by Dr Marian Stamp-Dawkins: Why Animals Matter: Animal Consciousness, animal-welfare, and human well-being for a better understand of this matter.

I am sure that groups like PeTA (who strongly supported and promoted 'Blackfish) and other members of the animal-rights movement are delighted that you have chosen to show 'Blackfish' without any form of discussion in what appears to be the BBC endorsing the content of the documentary; a situation that I find both deeply disturbing and disappointing.

Yours sincerely

John Dineley, BA.Hons, FZS

Despite my lengthy response I heard no more from Kate Townsend and when I submitted a formal complaint to the BBC I received a somewhat long winded letter that did not address any of the points I made. 

Unfortunately, I have begun to form an opinion that the BBC seems to pay lip-service in its accountability with the public and when complaints are received seem to undertake a rather bizarre war of attrition on the complainee.  I had direct experience of this in 1992 when I and others took the BBC to the
Broadcasting Complaints Commission over the animal-rights dolphin release documentary Into The Blue.

Obviously, as a large organisation, they must receive a lot of public comment. However I think in the case of the film 'Blackfish' and the lengths I went to responding in detail to my concerns demonstrates that we should all be concerned at the BBC impartiality particularly in matters of animal-rights/animal welfare.  To this end, it should be noted that since November 2013 the BBC have now shown 'Blackfish' four times.

The BBC is the oldest public broadcasting organisation in the world it operates under a Royal Charter with the support of the UK government. Its funding comes from the public in the form of a Licence Fee. It is responsibility as a corporation is to "inform, educate and entertain" to which end it has to be seen to be both factual and objective.  This ethos was enshrined in the thoughts of one of the original BBC directors Lord Reith.  This is why as a newsgathering organisation it has in the past had an extremely good reputation.

However, within the recent past the Corporation has been subject to criticism. Particularly in areas of science where it has been suggested that various fringe views from special interest lobby groups has been given equal consideration to that of bona fide scientific opinion in the interest of balance.  Due to this concern, in 2008, the BBC commissioned Dr Steve Jones to review specialist and non-specialist science content on TV, radio and online. 

The result of this review was that in 2014 the BBC Board made a clear statement of intent that all future broadcasting within the remit of science would be objective and based on the available evidence. Further, that any counter arguments or debate on subjects would have to be based on rigorous scientific arguments and not the opinions of various lobbyist agendas that may be considered political and partisan.

This appears to have been taken on board by producers of factual newsgathering and scientific programming. However, it seems clear as illustated above, that many producers and programme makers seemed blindsided when it comes to the issue of animal-rights vs animal welfare. There appears to a singular inability of programme makers being unable to discriminate the difference between animal welfare (an objective testable science) and animal-rights (a subjective political ideology).

Further Reading

Our Zoo: Animal Cruelty? 

The "Bear" Facts: ADI and CAPS Defeated by Locals 

Into The Blue: What ever became of "Missie", "Silver" and "Rocky"

The Captive Animals' Protection Society - CAPS

Virginia McKenna and the Forgotten Story of "Born Free"

Post Script:

It appears I am not the only one who is concerned about the non-commissioning of a second series of Our Zoo. The local Chester newspaper the Chester Chronicle has reported the fact that the BBC is not going to continue making this drama and has initiated a petition to lobby for a second series. The petition can be found HERE.