Extinction Rebellion, the BBC, and the War against Nature

George Orwell statue and quotation with XR flag, BBC Broadcasting House

Ok, it’s time to fess up….. I’ve been active in Extinction Rebellion for the last six months. The evidence that we’re heading for climate breakdown becomes clearer every week. It is true to say that we always see what we look for, and there have always been extreme weather events. But the frequency and variety of their occurence these days is unmistakeable. And let us not forget that XR (Extinction Rebellion) has called for a climate AND ecological emergency to be declared – it is not just about the climate. It is about what was recently described by United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres as the war against nature – a war that we have been waging for hundreds (or perhaps thousands) of years; but particularly in my own lifetime, and increasingly so.

I was pretty active in the environmental movement locally in 1980’s and 1990’s. I was part of a very active Friends of the Earth group in Aberystwyth and then moved on to become a founding member of Friends of Cardigan Bay in 1989 – an involvement that lasted for ten years. But these activities gradually faded away as I became more successful as a photographer. I felt that I had to put all my time into my photographic career. As regular readers will  know I have had to accept that those days are pretty much over now; so the coming of XR gave me a new outlet for my energy. To be quite honest this new direction feels far more relevant and important than “being a photographer”. So I gradually dipped my toes into the water with XR.

There are a couple of very controversial characters within XR’s leadership and I don’t agree with everything that XR says or does. For example, it is totally unrealistic to believe that this country could become carbon-neutral by the year 2025. As things stand we will be struggling to achieve that aim by 2050. I had my doubts about the London Uprising in October. Was it necessary for it to last for two whole weeks? The media has a very short attention span. But what XR has successfully done, in its rather imperfect way, is to bring the climate and ecological crises close to the top of the public agenda. It is far more acceptable now for scientists and politicians to voice their concerns when there is more fertile ground for that message to be heard. Would the Secretary General of the U.N.  have been able to talk about a war against nature – AND be taken seriously – if it hadn’t been for Extinction Rebellion?

I was in London for a couple of days during the October Uprising. The Welsh encampment outside the Home Office had been cleared away before I even arrived. I spent most of my first day in Trafalgar Square, mainly leafletting. I wandered down Whitehall – the middle of the street, that is, not the pavement. It was very surreal. I arrived at St. James’s Park just in time to find the Welsh contingent being moved on again. I heard that an action was being planned at BBC Broadcasting House for my second day, and I arrived there just in time to see a couple of dozen activists – many of them Welsh – heading for the front doors of the building and sitting down, preventing access. I spent the next two hours leafletting at the back door as BBC staff arrived to begin their days work. Meanwhile the crowd at the front swelled until there were several hundred people there by lunchtime, complete with banners and a sound system, and eventually speakers, musicians and a samba band. It was a wonderful experience.

But why was XR was targetting the BBC? In the recent past I have been very frustrated by the BBC;  environmental concerns just didn’t seem to feature in their current affairs output (see this post). It was my perception that things changed in a positive direction after the 2017 UK election when Michael Gove became Environment Secretary. Here was a self-declared “closet environmentalist” in a position of great influence;  a big hitter (in a political sense) whom the media listened to when he spoke. That all changed after the Conservative leadership contest:  can you name the current environment secretary? No, I thought not. Either my perception of a change in the BBC’s attitude was mistaken or the BBC lost interest in the environment as soon as A.N. Other took over from Michael Gove.

Anyway, we seem to be back to square one as far as the BBC Current Affairs Department is concerned. One listens in vain for environmental stories to be covered in any depth on the Today programme, for example. One short exchange broadcast a couple of weeks ago sums up their approach. It was a ‘meet the people’ event from Sheffield where a panel of students were being asked for their opinions, and went like this (I paraphrase) :

Journalist : So what are your concerns for the future?

First 18 year old : I’m very worried about the climate and how little the Government is doing about it.

Journalist (sounds slightly incredulous) : You mean the economic climate?

18 year old : No, I mean THE climate.

All three young people agreed that the changing climate was their major concern for the future.

The BBC produces terrific, world-class wildlife documentaries, often with environmental messages tacked on or even woven into the narrative. But its Current Affairs output treats the same subjects as trivia. To hear a decent discussion about the environment you need to tune into specialist programmes like “Costing the Earth” or even “Farming Today”  – the latter broadcast at 5.45 in the morning! These issues really need to be aired at peak time on mainstream programmes. At election time particularly this is a shocking dereliction of duty by our national broadcaster. All the political parties (with the exception of Brexit/UKIP) are making bold statements about the environment – for the first time – but the BBC just isn’t listening.

The photograph shows the statue of George Orwell, located rather ironically just outside the main entrance to BBC Broadcasting House, together with a quote by the writer. It sums up Extinction Rebellion’s ethos perfectly.


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