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The mystery of the 'extra' BBC Wild Isles episode and the RSPB's funding

What, then, is the ‘truth’ about the BBC’s latest David Attenborough series, Wild Isles, and the RSPB? We will probably never know, but for those who have missed the drama, here is a quick recap.

Wild Isles, which is touted as perhaps being Attenborough’s ‘final hurrah’, is the most recent series in Attenborough’s long career in making natural history programmes for the BBC. In the past we have travelled round the world with Sir David; high into the sky and deep under the seas. In Wild Isles however we stay at home, and examine with him the natural beauty of the British Isles.

The controversy erupted last week – just before the first episode was due to be broadcast this Sunday (12th) – when The Telegraph reported that the series had been part-funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). According to their sources, the decision to take the money had "prompted 'much internal agonising' … over the question of whether the corporation should be 'taking money from groups with any kind of campaigning agenda, particularly on a series with the environment at its heart'." The Telegraph also pointed out that both charities had previously been criticised for their political lobbying.

Despite this soul-searching, the BBC decided to take the money. But The Telegraph reported that as well as taking the funding, the BBC would also be airing a “companion documentary commissioned by the charities themselves”, which would only be available on iPlayer. In a statement, the BBC said that “the two charity partners invested in the production in return for rights which could be used as part of their outreach activity to raise awareness with the British public” and “were available to supply their expertise”

A few days later, The Guardian reported that the reason the ‘extra’ episode would only be available on iPlayer, rather than broadcast as part of the full series, was “because of fears its themes of the destruction of nature would risk a backlash from Tory politicians and the right-wing press.”

Helena Horton reported that “Senior sources at the BBC told the Guardian that the decision not to show the sixth episode was made to fend off potential critique from the political right.” She went on:

One source at the broadcaster, who asked not to be named, said ‘lobbying groups that are desperately hanging on to their dinosaurian ways’ such as the farming and game industry would ‘kick off’ if the show had too political a message. They added: ‘Frankly, this idea that you sort of put it in a separate programme to almost parcel it to one side is disingenuous. Why don’t they integrate those stories into all of them at the time?’.”

The BBC denied that this was the case, stating that “there is no ‘sixth episode’. Wild Isles is – and always was – a five part series and does not shy away from environmental content. We have acquired a separate film for iPlayer from the RSPB and WWF and Silverback Films about people working to preserve and restore the biodiversity of the British Isles.”

So what is the truth here? It is true that the Wild Isles episodes don’t shy away from highlighting environmental concerns. Attenborough himself warns that “Britain as a whole is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world”. “Never has there been a more important time to invest in our own wildlife - to try and set an example for the rest of the world and restore our once wild isles for future generations." And the end credits state that the programme was co-produced with the RSPB and the WWF.

It seems clear from their hurried response however that the BBC didn’t expect such a hoo-ha over the mystery sixth episode. This week the BBC’s impartiality and what their presenters can or can’t say has already come into question. Their alleged umm-ing and ahh-ing over whether to take the charities' money, and the confusion over the RSPB/WWF film does raise the question of how the BBC can take funding from organisations such as these which – as The Telegraph originally pointed out had previously been criticised for their political lobbying – and still claim to be impartial.

The full Wild Isles series has not yet been released; however while we know that the programme features rare ground-nesting birds, for example, it would seem unlikely that the gamekeepers and land managers, who work tirelessly, at no expense to the taxpayer, to provide the habitat for these animals and to protect them from predators are given any screentime. With the RSPB 'expertise' on hand – and providing a hefty dollop of cash – I think we all know what to expect from the mysterious ‘extra episode’.


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