Posted on: November 7th, 2015
There was a good, but brief comment in the most recent British Wildlife which gently chided a well-known TV personality for being a bit of a ranter. The same personality, Chris Packham, has been on the receiving end of some unwarranted and strangely personal criticism for expressing his views on conservation. He has also had some very wise advice from some of the best thinkers in conservation.
I enjoy the 'Watches' and found this week's AutumnWatch a fantastic series. I love Caerlaverock and the Solway and found the programme overall to be entertaining and informing. BBC Charter stuff at its best. And, I thought that this programme plays well to Chris Packham's abilities.
His 'smart, teacher' style, based on a depth of knowledge (backed up by a great research team) and natural style was the BBC natural history presenter in classic mode. He's a bit superior in tone to the comic-book Hughes-Games and emotionally-literate enthusiast Michaela Strachan, but someone with his qualifications and experience can teach the rest of us a lot about zoology. And I think it works and is a great format. I understand that the big cheeses at the Beeb think so too and we'll see more shows following this format soon.
There were some strange, but welcome, ventures into slightly more controversial issues, notably badgers. But the gloves were so tightly on that this was a slightly farcical part of the programme. The BBC can do better than 'on the one hand' and 'on the other hand'.
Frankly, the badger issue (and a whole pile of other big countryside stories) needs a better format than 30 seconds on Autumnwatch, or indeed 2 minutes on Countryfile, to do it justice and properly illuminate the issue. The 'watches' are great, indeed really great, television, but they are not airing big wildlife, countryside or sustainability issues and they're not setting an agenda, challenging myths or winning over sceptics.
So, why the criticism of Packham, front man of a successful if light TV nature series? At a recent University of Derby event about connecting children to nature, Packham was a popular and engaging participant. Several years ago, I spent half an hour with him chatting about wildlife in the Peak District. He was a good listener, thoughtful and reflective and immensely well-informed on the fundamentals of biology. So where does the shouty reputation come from?
Some weeks ago, I attended the 'Hen Harrier Day' event in Buxton. To this pretty big audience, Packham was the star turn. That night, there was no BBC charter, no great phalanx of sharp intellectual critics of conservation and no reason for Packham to box cleverly. Here, I saw him in a different light.
He was passionate (OK, I get that), he was angry (I can understand that too on the hen harrier issue), but so too he lacked balance, he ranted, he was personally abusive about some of his critics and he was, in my view, irrational and not very convincing. His argument that all the birds he'd seen as a child were all gone was laughable, given the amazingly successes of bird conservation over the last 25 years (for some, not all, species).
Indeed, his style was very effective at disguising some otherwise quite good points. I was in a small minority in that room of acolytes. He was being encouraged too by people who have made it their career to be angry, shouty and a bit partial in what they say. I understood then why Chris Packham has the reputation of a being a shouty firebrand.
A few days later, Charles Clover picked up the criticism of Chris Packham and offered some very good advice, borne of Charles' wisdom, knowledge of the country people so criticised by Packham, and probably too some insights into the broadcaster's character. Charles advised Packham to get out into the countryside, meet the keepers and the people at the sharp end of the conservation debates. I think this was great advice and will play well to the intrinsic strengths that this intelligent, scientifically-trained broadcaster has. It may strengthen his arguments, it may nuance them and it may even change his views.
Chris Packham is a better rationalist than he is a shouty man. His cause will be better served by the power of persuasion rather than fundamentalist rabble rousing. Why? The people who strongly responded to Packham's call to action, anger and partisan rallying in Buxton are already committed conservationists. The people who search out and watch Springwatch are pretty clearly supporters of conservaton. What conservation needs is more people who are not yet convinced, not yet participating and not yet aware of the wonder of nature to get involved. We need more magnets to attract and fewer to repel.
There are, in my view, slightly too many grumpy old men in conservation whose personal attacks, left-wing bias, 'it ain't as good as it used to be' and 'you're with us or you're against us' dogmas are frankly doing a disservice to conservation. Chris Packham would be wise to follow Charles Clover's advice and seek ways of building, not defending, bridges. The people gifted to be the privileged people of being the spokepeople for nature have a duty to win over those who are not yet part of the conservation movement and not to repel them.
They have a duty to role-model respect. How can we argue for respect of nature if we don't respect each other? And they have a duty to engage the great majority of the next generation who are being brought up to take arguments on their merits and not be harangued into adopting views. Great campaigns are the ones that achieve things, not the ones that leave campaigners vindicated in defeat
All hail the persuaders, convincers, listeners and achievers. Damn the shouters, haranguers, dividers and losers.