You have to stand four-square with David Attenborough on this one. Fearlessly. You simply have to defend to the death the right of his documentary-making team to rescue those baby penguins.
If you happen to have missed this shocking incursion into proper broadcasting ethics, sit back and be prepared to be outraged. Attenborough’s team was following a bunch of penguins doing their ritual march across snow for no purpose any of us can establish other than to give great footage to the BBC.
The penguins face gale-force winds, blistering blizzards, and snows that shift beneath their dual purpose feet. Those feet being used for onward propulsion but also baby-carrying. So, even on a good day, you don’t want to be a penguin living in the Antarctic. This particular day, however, was not, by any measure, a good day for the penguins, although it has to be said that for the filming crew, it was a gift. A bunch of the baby penguins fell down a crevasse, and — as the cameras showed — could not, despite their most heroic efforts, get up the steep sides of their prison in order to get on with their lives.
Absent human intervention, those penguin lives were going to end, right there in the snow, as they starved and froze into little dead bundles of feathers and bone.
The TV crew knew what they were there to do. They were there to record the unvarnished truth of Mother Nature going about her frequently murderous business. They were not there to interfere with the natural course of things, because importing such Red Cross anthropomorphism would vitiate everything their lord and master, Mr Attenborough, stood for, and everything their paymistress, the Beeb maintains with unique passion in this post-truth decade. Climbing down off the high moral ground, this meant that what they quite properly would do was watch the baby penguins’ death throes, record them faithfully, edit them into their finished production and check the ratings, buoyed up by their adherence to the rules of fine documentary-making.
Now, of course, these rules get broken all the time, with post-production taking a group laugh from the first day of filming and sticking it into the footage from the last day of filming to make it look as if Character A had evoked the laughter, when Character A definitively did not evoke the laughter.
Documentary-makers editing laughs into where laughs are not found in nature would claim that they’re serving the truth, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way, but that (watch them rise to their full height and puff out their chests in outrage) they are certainly not interfering with ecology. Or the natural environment.
Many documentary makers, inflated with their own rectitude, are more sniffy than a common cold sufferer this week because of what the Attenborough crew did. Which was build a little staircase. No kidding. Not quite the new version of Lego for grown-ups. More ‘Supportive Snow Play for Adults’. The crew created an escape route for the penguins and sat back to see if the birds were going to have the cop-on to climb on. They did, escaping to resume their onward journey.
Media purists have been horrified by this episode, which goes to show how loopy purists can be in mid-winter. This is not an example of “sending the wrong message” thereby evoking a series of copy-cat snow stair builders and bending out of shape the inherited survival skills gene in penguins for generations to come.
Nobody’s going to rush to the Antarctic on the offchance a group of underage penguins will fall down a hole, giving the observers the chance to rescue them. Not much is certain, right now, but that one is guaranteed. It’s just not going to happen. The purists may have wanted to show the full truth. Admirable, that thought, although showing pre-teens the agonising demise of baby penguins is where truth meets trauma. Even fading to black and leaving the deaths to the imagination would have been pretty traumatic.
All of which said, the fact is that if those penguins had been seagulls, half the world would have cheered them to their demise. Admittedly, because seagulls can fly and penguins can’t, the situation might not have required the building of a staircase, but the point is that, were the flying capacity of seagulls inhibited by the cold, so they needed to walk out of the hole they were in, nobody would have cared, and if Attenborough’s people interfered in the interests of seagulls, they’d have been in a lot more trouble than they currently are.
Now, one branch of the seagull family, herring gulls, is now an officially endangered species. Their traditional food supply has so dwindled as to halve their numbers in Britain and Ireland. Nobody fights for herring gulls, because there’s no votes in them. Herring gulls have no audience. No support group. No celebrity fans. Nobody gives a toss if their numbers have shrunk, and many — including some of our own politicians — want their numbers artificially shrunk as soon as a good massacre can be organised. This, ostensively, is because if you sit in a harbour waving a sandwich around, a starving herring gull may swoop down and take a bite out of it. Herring gulls are scavengers and predators. That’s what they do, and if we care about the natural environment, we would not be moaning about the odd stolen sandwich.
But the issue isn’t about the natural role of herring gulls, is it? It’s actually about their appearance. Nothing in life matches the concentrated evil of a herring gull face in, close up. Compare and contrast the public loathing of the herring gull, a species under threat, with the attitude to a massive population of another bird, Erithacus Rubicula. Four million of these lads populate this country, and a more aggressive shower of territorialists never existed. They spend their lives fighting off any bird that lands on their ground, and the distinctive coloured bit of their uniform gets bigger every year, in order to serve as a warning: You come into my territory, I will see you dead before I let you stay.
They get away with it by looking adorable. They pose for pictures standing on the cross beams of garden spades, head on one side. They even have their own month. December may never have officially been allocated to the robin, but the bird owns it, all the same. For the next few weeks, it’s going to be an avian overdose of cute. Little plastic robins on chocolate Yule logs. Bouncy robins on Christmas cards. Roundy redbreast ornaments for Christmas trees.
As an educated, environmentally-aware population, we should care much more about the herring gull than about the robin. But Mother Nature is the ultimate spin doctor. She has us sold on robins and penguins. Uglier species can fend for themselves, living from stolen sandwich to sandwich.