The BBC should treasure Chris Packham, not sack him

Sep 9, 2015   //   by Nicholas Milton   //   Blog  //  1 Comment

My Guardian article today in defence of the BBC presenter Chris Packham has been shared over 10,000 times. Interesting how the Countryside Alliance’s attempt to get him sacked has simply proved how popular he is. The full article is below.

So Chris Packham finds himself in deep water again over comments he has made in his column in BBC Wildlife magazine. His latest outburst, a broadside against the conservation groups he has worked with all his life including as vice-president of the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, is typical of a man who has never toed the line, whether as a conservationist, campaigner or BBC presenter.

Chris Packham

What makes his latest outburst different is that the Countryside Alliance, which has long defended shooting and hunting with hounds, has finally come out and called for his sacking. In response to his article on conservation groups sitting on the fence over badger culling, fox hunting and the persecution of hen harriers, it stated “There is no issue with people voicing such opinions, but using the position granted by a public service broadcaster to promote an extreme agenda is a different thing entirely.” Privately the Countryside Alliance has long despised him but has been wary about taking him on given his huge popularity. Knowing in the current climate how sensitive the BBC is to any accusation of political campaigning, the alliance has seized its opportunity.

I have known Chris for nearly 30 years, having first worked with him at the BBC Natural History Unit on the Really Wild Show back in 1988. Over the years I have interviewed him many times and last month we spent a weekend together as part of Hen Harrier Day, organised by the former RSPB conservation director, author and campaigner Mark Avery. Chris was on good form, telling the audience “We’re sick of the injustice. We’ve had five male hen harriers disappear this year. Both the RSPB and the BBC said they had ‘mysteriously disappeared’. Let’s cut the crap. They were shot, poisoned or trapped by gamekeepers. But the hen harrier is our Cecil the Lion. We wont put up with their persecution any longer and just like Cecil the public will back us.”

Back in the 1980s as now he was a Marmite presenter within the unit. There he had many doors closed in his face simply because with his shock of spiky blond hair, which was modelled on the rocker Billy Idol, he looked different. After his contract with the Really Wild Show was up in 1995, his outspoken views and outlandish dress sense resulted in the BBC letting him go with only very occasional work. During this period he spent many years working in the wilderness as an independent film-maker.

Since his return to the unit in 2009 as a presenter on Springwatch, Chris has rarely been out of the headlines and this has caused increasing discomfort to his BBC bosses. This culminated in a public reprimand two years ago for describing those behind the government’s badger cull as “brutalist thugs, liars and frauds” on Twitter.

The complaint leading to that reprimand was also lodged by the Countryside Alliance, and the current one will be seen by some in the BBC as yet more evidence that he is out of control. In contrast his supporters will see it as evidence that he is not afraid to take on vested interests, whether shooting, hunting or conserving wildlife.

Many members of the conservation organisations he criticises in his article will agree with him. The National Trust, Hawk and Owl Trust, the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB are increasingly out of step with many of their members over issues such as the ban on driven grouse shooting, with more than 15,000 people having signed a government online petition to ban it. It’s time that instead of putting out fence-sitting statements trying to justify their uncomfortable positions, they balloted their members.

In the last five years Chris has been credited in the media with waging war on pandas, dormice, insect-eating celebrities, tigers, deer, elephants and, most recently, conservation groups. Although he insists he is often misquoted, this time the controversial words have come straight from his own hand so he has no one to blame but himself.

The fact that his BBC bosses have so far failed to publicly back him is an ominous sign. His fate will depend a lot on the ability of the head BBC Natural History Unit, Wendy Darke, to fend off political pressure from above to quietly drop him. The Countryside Alliance has many friends in the Conservative party and the BBC is already under huge pressure ahead of the royal charter review next year. Natural history film-making is very expensive and the programmes that he presents are already in the firing line for cuts.

In response to the controversy the BBC issued a short statement saying that “if Chris Packham wishes to express his personal views outside of his employment on BBC Natural History programmes, he is entitled to do so”. However, this falls far short of backing him in his presenters role and does not address the fact that his article was written in a BBC magazine.

Love or loathe him, what makes Chris special is that in he isn’t afraid to speak his mind and he is willing to put his money where his mouth is. His recent self-funded trip to end the shooting of Malta’s wild birds did more to highlight this senseless slaughter than 40 years of campaigning by conservation groups.

Within the BBC Natural History Unit there is an ongoing debate about who will eventually inherit David Attenborough’s crown. Chris, as the anchor for the very popular Springwatch and a host of other programmes, was in the running. This current episode will have harmed his chances. Yet that matters little to a man who was never in it for the fame or the money but to protect wildlife and start a debate, how uncomfortable that may make people feel.

In an age of bland, safe and overpaid presenters the BBC needs to treasure him, not sack him.

1 Comment

  • The Guardian closed their comments section even as I was writing, so I’d like to pass it back to you:

    A superb argument from Nicholas Milton.

    I have no dogs in this race. I have never watched Packham presenting, have certainly not seen Springwatch — or, indeed, more than a few glimpses of CountryFile (all these metropolitan media-types in green wellies and Prada make my skin crawl, striding before camera-crews – with the purposefulness of Boswell and Johnson – through Britain’s vast, private monocultures) and, much as I admire Attenborough, I have probably taken in considerably less of him than most of your readership.

    I grew up and still live in the countryside and, whilst I feel occasional sympathy for the much-picked-on Tim-Nice-But-Dims whom the Alliance clearly articulates, I resent its implied claim to speak for me. It was formed in justifiable (yet undoubtedly reactionary) opposition to one of the two whips with which so-called “New Labour” beat the shires on occasions when grassroots metropolitan support was on the wane.

    That Blair’s government managed to outlaw fox hunting and more-or-less extinguish hereditary-peer membership of the House of Lords was indeed historic: it seemed to address injustices inflicted upon the real people of the countryside – formerly known as commoners – over a three-hundred year period. The various Acts of Enclosure “legalised” their disenfranchisement from land (though any such “legality” is questionable), and impelled them to fast-growing cities in search of work. This “industrial” revolution also created its nemesis as Labour’s radical supporter-base. radicals have long memories: as demonstrated continuously from “right to roam” land-invasions by ramblers of the 1930s to the hunt-sabbing escapades of their grand- and great-grandchildren.

    But “New Labour” was not really championing the aggrieved here, merely disenfranchising the next level of “inefficiency” thought to stand in the way of globalised free market economics, Blair’s so called “forces of modernity” (Milton Friedman’s record on Chile, I think, speaks for itself as regards “laissez-faire”; “bottom-up” economics subsumes community rights in favour of mercenary freedoms and rewards a “race to the bottom” for the sake of profit-margin). Blair made no secret of his admiration for the Iron Lady (another old friend of Pinochet and Friedman). Now that giant agribusiness is financed by multinational corporate investment, the blue-blooded, pink-wearing, horse-whipping aristocracy are less relevant to – and less defended by – those who seek power.

    The BBC, though, is one of the last commonly-held broadcasters. I pay for my license, despite seldom turning on any TV, because I’m proud of a charter which aimed to enshrine journalistic integrity and editorial independence from both government and private corporate interference. But, with the former now in the pocket of the latter, public service broadcasting finds itself under attack from both sides. Ten years ago, the death of Doctor David Kelly was used by Blair’s government to constrict editors’ freedoms (to such an extent that the BBC News turned almost overnight into a pail imitation of Pravda; the World Service removed from terrestrial UK air) and, under Cameron, the onslaught has increased in ferocity. It was only the shock of the Milly Dowler affair which saved us from our so-called ‘Culture Secretary’s (I think it noteworthy that Europe’s first “Minister for Culture,” media, and sport was Doctor Goebbels) awarding of full monopoly control of Sky News to the controllers of Fox News, The Sun, NOTW, Times and Sunday Times. The much misquoted, supposed “champion” of free market, Adam Smith, actually pointed out that the problem with businessmen is that, when gathered in private, they tend to conspire against the general good.

    Frankly, all I want to hear from any broadcast presenters — indeed any politicians — is the integrity of their own beliefs, arguments and opinions, delivered from the heart. In so doing, they are contributing to public debate. Anything less than that is propaganda. Politicians, corporations, and their spokesmen are nowadays pressurised into staying on-message and delivering orchestrated soundbites designed to mislead. If they continue to thrust their suffocating styles onto our broadcasters it will stifle any pretence at pluralist democracy.

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Nicholas Milton

I am a marketing and communication expert with over 20 years experience. Over this time I have campaigned on issues I feel passionately about - conservation, climate change, racial equality, land reform, rural poverty and most recently international development. I am also a successful freelance journalist and have been published in the Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and the Independent.

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