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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A bit of a rant about the BBC

I have become more and more aware over the last few years how low a priority the environment is on BBC television and radio news and current affairs.

Unfortunately I don’t sleep too well and I tend to hear rather too much of the World Service during the night. I began to notice how environmental stories would be heard on the World Service but not on Radio 4 during the Today programme the following morning. An example would be the massive protest against the construction of the Dakota XL oil pipeline which ex-President Obama eventually halted. I was disappointed (and more) that environmental issues were given such low priority during the last General Election and the run-up to the EU referendum. Caroline Lucas M.P. was occasionally given a slot on one programme or another, and without fail she performed brilliantly. With that exception it seemed that the politicians didn’t want to discuss the environment and no-one at the BBC was willing to take them to task for this. It seemed there must have been an unspoken agreement between them.

Last week on the eve of the crowning of “President Trump” a 30-minute Panorama programme looked into his links with Putin of Russia. It was largely intrigue and speculation. In contrast, half-an-hour earlier, a Channel 4 programme had looked into Trump’s links with “Big Coal” and “Big Oil”. As well as interviews with some of the main players such as lobbyists for the coal and oil industries, C4 had found actual evidence of the massive donations they had made to the Republican Party and Trump’s campaign. This was proper investigational journalism on a crucial issue.

Most recently there have been the executive orders that Trump has already signed. “Obamacare” got coverage on R4 news but not another which was made at the same time to begin to roll back Obama’s Climate Change-related legislation. Last night when the Dakota XL pipeline was given the go-ahead by Trump it was mentioned on every news bulletin on the World Service that I heard – every half-hour, I believe, together with interviews with an oil industry lobbyist and an environmentalist. Questions about the donations to Trump were asked. On Radio 4 – zilch. The Today programme did cover the Executive Order Trump had signed regarding the construction of the Mexican Wall, but rather than then mention the pipeline issue, they went on to speculate at great length about the Wall.

I can’t pretend that I hear every single minute of the Today programme or every single news broadcast. This is not a scientific survey. I’m sure someone at the BBC would be only too happy to prove me wrong but I listen to enough radio to get an impression of the pattern that has emerged. I have been a supporter of the BBC for its unbiased coverage of current affairs for many years but now I really wonder where I can go to hear politicians being challenged about their environmental policies. There is so much speculation in BBC current affairs about what such-and-such a politician will announce later and what will happen then. The BBC should remember that there are far more members of conservation organisations than of political parties. The environment is not a minority interest. It is time that their journalists got out of the Westminster bubble and began doing their job.

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