Daily Telegraph

BBC ‘soap opera’ nature programmes cast species as ‘evil’, scientists warn

Emotive formats spread misunderstandings and encourage people to project human values onto animals, a new study says

ByOlivia Rudgard, ENVIRONMENT CORRESPONDENT15 April 2021 • 5:03pm

A still from the chimp episode of the BBC's Dynasties
A still from the chimp episode of the BBC’s Dynasties CREDIT: Mark MacEwen 

Wildlife “soap operas” in Attenborough-style documentaries hinder conservation by casting some species as “evil”, Oxford University scientists have warned.

Documentaries such as Sir David Attenborough’s 2018 series Dynasties, which focuses on specific groups of animals, lead to an overly emotive view of wildlife, which stops the public from understanding the real problems affecting the natural world, the paper says.

Human values such as courage, patience or parenting skills are projected onto animals, leading to “perceived moral deviance in species where these virtues cannot easily be identified” and even suggesting “‘evil’ human qualities” in individual animals.  

The public are encouraged to sympathise with some species, such as lions, while others such as hyenas are demonised, a perception also popularised by Disney hit The Lion King, limiting conservation funding and public interest in less idealised animals.  

Lead author, University of Kent academic Professor Keith Somerville, a former BBC journalist, said that competition with soaps Emmerdale and Coronation Street on ITV had led to increasingly dramatic narratives.

Artificial cliffhangers and false jeopardy are introduced to storylines about normal events such as fights and the annual dry season, he said. 

“I and my co authors would not in any way argue with the contribution that Attenborough has made for decades to people’s love of the natural world, and particularly of wildlife in far-flung places that most people won’t get the chance to visit.

“But I think there’s the other side of it – the need for accuracy, and to avoid turning wildlife documentaries into pure entertainment, and thereby moving away from the old Reithian principles of ‘inform, educate and entertain’.

“If ‘entertain’ becomes too strong a motive for making the programmes, you begin to lose the inform and educate ones, or you even misinform people, which is the worry particularly about the Dynasties series,” he said.