Steve Backshall recently presented a series called Deadly Sixty – on a Mission, at 6pm on Sunday on BBC1, probably with many children watching. He travels the world showing various species that may qualify for his notorious list.
The question is, yes it may be good for ratings, appeals to children, but in the end, does it do the animals themselves any good? I doubt it.
Should the spotted flycatcher be one of the Deadly Sixty? This inoffensive little brown bird migrates to Europe from Africa every summer and, surprise surprise, catches flies, not only spotted ones. According to the Deadly Sixty wide-ranging criteria it is a formidable flyer, picking off insects in mid-air and eating them alive – yes, yet another “deadly predator”, that worn out phrase. “Slayer” and “assassin” appeared on April 4th, words more applicable to humans than to the animals who need all the help they can get. So Steve Backshall treads a tricky line between attracting ratings and showing respect and admiration for the species he chooses.
Let’s hope Steve can help rectify his reputation as a wrangler of so called “deadly” species by the promotion of his well-observed, well-promoted, and well-narrated series Microworlds repeated on BBC2 from a small audience slot on BBC4 (4 viewers?). That is the truth about nature, not a countdown of species whose future may be threatened by misleading sensationalism.
Here we go again. From the respected Radio Times a typical example of “Fang TV”. (23rd May 2013)
And from the Guardian newspaper, also a respected publication, by Adam Welz.
“Wolves are depicted as “mean ferocious animals and they can tear a man apart real easy” on TV, despite evidence to the contrary." Photograph: Alamy
"Most people’s wild beasts live in the TV.
What I mean is that, in my experience, most people are highly unlikely to come eyeball-to-eyeball with a large wild animal in their everyday lives, and much of their knowledge of wildlife comes from a screen.
If you're North American or get US-produced satellite TV, you've probably learned a lot about wildlife from outlets like the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and History. You might trust these channels because you've seen educational, factually accurate shows on them, unlike the 'trashy' material that dominates free-to-air network TV.
But not everything on on these 'factual' channels might be as ethical or even as accurate as you might think, and the implications for conservation could be profound.
I recently spent a few entertaining hours watching episodes of Discovery's Yukon Men, a hit 'reality' series about the residents of the small town of Tanana in central Alaska. Launched in August last year, it's consistently gained over two million US viewers in its Friday night slot, been syndicated overseas, and helped the channel win some of its biggest audiences ever.
The first episode brings us to midwinter Tanana, which a theatrical, husky male voiceover tells us is "one of America's most remote outposts" where "every day is a struggle to survive". A dramatic, orchestral score pounds as we see a lynx struggling in a leghold trap, guns firing, a man attacking a squealing wolverine with a tree trunk, a wolf which a voice tells us "might eat one of those kids", a hand lifting up the head of a bloodied, dead wolf to show us its teeth, and then a gloved hand dripping blood while the voiceover rumbles that in Alaska, it's "hunt or starve, kill or be killed".
For even more of the same sort of thing, National Geographic Wild on May 5th 2013 (Radio Times)
The fact is that wolves, wolverines, alligators, rattlesnakes and other media-exploited species rarely attack man. Usually it’s only to defend themselves from the likes of Discovery and National Geographic.
Since when have gorillas been “deadly in their own world” – BBC Wildlife piece about Steve Backshall, (p64) October 2013?
Is this King Kong revisited, with a tiny woman as a snack? Ever since the late Steve Irwin wrangled with terrified animals, the use of “deadly” has been exaggerated, misused, and to the detriment of the unfortunate species involved. The “deadly” approach may well be commercial and an aid to Backshall’s success but what kind of attitudes does it instil in the young audiences he brags about?
As far as being a “legend” with a “global brand”, and compared to the real thing, David Attenborough and his early series like Zoo Quest, try modesty and accuracy for a change Steve. Talk about delusions of grandeur!
Richard Brock’s letter to the Radio Times
18 October 2013
The piece by Alison Graham about Killer Whales (Radio Times 19th-25th October) includes the word “brutal”. The Oxford Dictionary describes this word as “… not gifted with reason”, “merely animal”, “coarsely sensual or callously cruel”. Alison Graham then writes their praises, and there are further references to killer whales being “sociable and intelligent”. Is all this about the same species? Words like “deadly killers” are over-used and crass. Steve Backshall is particularly guilty of this – See previous two-page feature in Radio Times 12th-18th October.
The stupid word ”deadly”, as in his macho series Deadly Pole to Pole and The Deadly 60, says such species are “dangerous to each other, not us”. The rest of the two pages are graphic images of such animals as a polar bear, sharks and bullet ants… “trial by agony”… “pain”.
This brutalisation of animals, simply going about their natural business, degrades the animals, the presenters and the film-makers. Humans, who are the most brutal of all, as they grow up, may well come to despise and dislike predators, and it will become increasingly difficult to help them when they need it in the future.
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