Conditioning the national discourse: self-censorship at the BBC
Friday, 23 February 2024 02:18

Conditioning the national discourse: self-censorship at the BBC

The news that the BBC will not broadcast an episode of the new David Attenborough flagship British wildlife documentary Wild Isles indicates the power of acceptable and established narratives that are so pervasive within our society.

The BBC has decided to not broadcast an episode of David Attenborough’s new wildlife series “because of fears its themes of the destruction of nature would risk backlash from Tory politicians and the rightwing press, the Guardian has been told” (Guardian, 2023). This indicates the power and reach of established discourse and narratives within British society, that an episode that looks at the stark loss of nature within the UK is deemed unacceptable to the degree that the BBC has self-censored itself for fear of backlash.

This clearly not only speaks volumes for the power of the rightwing press, Tory MP’s and political spokespersons, it also demonstrates how environmental destruction is framed as something that happens elsewhere, in the global south or by people who might be framed as less understanding of global environmental concerns. Indeed, when it comes to environmental destruction, degradation and decline the UK leads the way. We have one of the lowest levels of forest cover within Europe, let alone the world. We have lost all of our native apex predators long ago and there are very few places that are left to exist in a natural state outside of the demands of urbanisation, industrial farming or other such pressures such as the use of seemingly wild areas for the pursuit of pleasure based upon animal abuse.

Yet, when environmental catastrophe and destruction is mentioned or discussed it is often in terms of places such as the Amazon, India or other areas in the global south where western value judgements of environmental protectionism are applied often against populations who are framed as uncivilised or uncaring. Well-worn colonial narratives are used here that ‘we’ in the west or the UK are informed and care about the environment, whereas ‘them’ in the global south are ignorant and hell bent on environmental destruction. The point being that a mirror is never allowed to be held up to ourselves to see what we have done to our own natural environment.

There are very good reasons for this. We in the UK have a terrible record and do not hold ourselves to the standards we often apply to others across the world. Moreover, the conservative right in the UK dominate the ownership of the ‘natural’ environment and the discourse that surrounds it. For example, the creation and use of huge grouse moors across the country and the leisure industry that is based upon the catastrophic destruction of nature in these areas, from eradication of birds of prey, to the importation and rearing of millions of pheasants (a non-native species that also have been held accountable for huge negative effects upon the native British wildlife). These places are also enjoyed by, and often owned by the most powerful individuals in the UK. The intensive industrial farming techniques that have made biological deserts of much of the land and have led to the extinction of multiple species. The systematic destruction of native and ancient woodland at the expense for short-term economic growth held in the hands of a very few, and the extreme levels of land ownership by the very wealthy.

The context of this decision by the BBC must be taken into account. This comes in the same week that Gary Lineker was hounded by the rightwing press and government for making comments about the inhuman nature of the proposed government asylum policy. Clearly the BBC is feeling cowed that it – or at least one of its employees – has inadvertently made the right disgruntled. Indeed, this will also lead to further the narratives from the right that the BBC is some sort of left-leaning broadcaster.

However, Gary Lineker was making a personal tweet from a private account. Contrast this to when Jeremy Clarkson would regularly make often overt political statements and sexist and racist comments and insinuations on a regular basis within aired episodes of Top Gear, let alone anti-environmental proclamations.

What is also telling is that the new Wild Isles nature documentary is narrated and produced in the same vein as other flagship BBC documentaries such as the Blue Planet. This was held up at the time by Tory politicians such as Theresa May as an example of the high standard of the BBC at its very best. The difference being, not the standard or quality of documentary but the subject material.

Nevertheless, it is no wonder that the rightwing in the UK would be so reluctant for a nature documentary to highlight the plight of the natural world in the UK. It would uncover the vast scale of hypocrisy and double standards, as well as the feudal land ownership system that we have in the UK today.