Andrew Montford: Another Attenborough tragedy porn exposé

More tragedy porn.

“Tragedy porn” is now a standard green propaganda technique. You’ve probably been on the receiving end of it, and will recognise it once I describe it. First of all you need a victim. Animals – preferably fluffy ones, and preferably with large eyes – are ideal, but people will do at a pinch. Then you have to film them in the process of dying or otherwise suffering. A presenter or scientist needs to be on hand to describe the events, preferably choking away their tears. Then you blame global warming.

It is often an effective technique, but care is required. Last week, tragedy porn proved to be the undoing of Sir David Attenborough, when a carefully contrived story on Netflix  that global warming was driving walruses over cliff tops unravelled over the course of a week, as a series of flaws were discovered in the narrative and in the tales spun by the production team as they attempted to cover up what they had done. Once it emerged that the production team may well have played a role in causing the tragedy, it all started to look a bit problematic.

It’s therefore unfortunate that in Climate Change: the Facts, his latest magnum opus – which aired last week on BBC1 – producers deployed a bit of tragedy porn, and once again it appears that viewers were misled.

The animal that was chosen to front the relevant segment of the new show were bats, and in particular the spectacled flying fox, a native of Papua New Guinea and northern Australia. Flying foxes are an excellent choice for tragedy porn, being very furry and having the most extraordinary bulbous eyes, beautifully evolved to bring out the maternal instinct in everyone.

The producers gave the audience both barrels. We were treated to commentary from Rebecca Koller, the owner of a bat sanctuary near Cairns, who described how a heatwave in the area had left “dead bats as far as the eye could see”. This, we were told, was “climate change in action”. And in case you missed the point, we were also treated to a description of “the deafening sound of babies crying”, with Ms Koller apparently on the verge of tears. Now the young of bats are correctly referred to as “pups”, of course, but this is tragedy porn, and scientific and technical accuracy therefore goes out of the window. Later on, as if to make the “flying foxes look like babies” point absolutely explicit, viewers were treated to images of a pup that had been swaddled and was being bottle fed. Subtle it was not, but hearts no doubt melted across the country anyway.

Sir David informed viewers that the method bats had evolved to cool off – dipping in pools of water – was “no longer enough”. This seemed rather odd to me; I would have thought they’d just need to take a dip slightly more often.

Read it all here.

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