Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Adam Welz and wildlife snuff movies

Yukon Men - aired on Discovery Channel, it makes Adam angry

I enjoyed Adam Welz's Guardian blog piece Bloodthirsty 'factual' TV shows demonise wildlife. It highlights the big holes in the TV networks' coverage of our treatment of wildlife and hunting. It ends more on questions than answers. I'd like to give the answers a go but there will be more questions.

The hunting narrative is deeply engrained in us - throughout human history, hunting stories have made compelling listening. The format is similar to a Greek comedy: the hunter goes out in the morning and after much tribulation brings down the beast. It helps the drama if the animal, bird or fish is either rogue, pest or edible. It offends Adam that Discovery Channel make so much of the rogue.

You should be able to draw a fairly straight line from the cave paintings of Lascaux to what I and my colleagues put out on Fieldsports Channel, which includes a weekly half-hour TV show about hunting/shooting/fishing called Fieldsports Britain. A YouTube channel, it gets more than a million views a month, so is bigger than one of the UK's Sky Sports channels.

When it comes to coverage of hunting, I believe the mistake the BBC makes is to use the word 'cruel' in its guidelines. Leaving aside hunting's position a long way down the list of 'cruel' things people do every day, from driving cars, through eating fish and chips to owning cats, this ban on 'cruelty' has led to the UK's terrestrial broadcasters abandoning the hunting narrative. It is good news for Fieldsports Channel because, when we want to bring in both viewers and advertisers, it means we are kicking at an open goal. But it is bad news for the hunting format, because films in this rising genre can easily fall off the straight and narrow of hunting adventure and into a seething pot of wildlife snuff movies. There are plenty of them on YouTube, which has acted to ban some.

Broadcasters don't have a settled vocabulary for how to present hunting TV items yet. I think that is part of the reason why National Geographic and Discovery won't reveal to Adam Welz their 'cruelty policies'.

YouTube's guidelines are woolly:  "Don't post videos showing bad stuff like animal abuse, drug abuse, or bomb making". Maybe this is YouTube acknowledging that the world has not yet come to a conclusion about what is and what is not acceptable.

Across TV-land, it's a mess. Part of the blame for this can be levelled at the broadcasters' sports departments, which never successfully wrested 'hunting' from natural history departments and only recently succeeded in doing so with fishing. Extreme Fishing was commissioned by C5 Sport, and its audience is massive compared to the much better-made, more worthy and  beautiful Hugh Miles series Catching The Impossible, commissioned by a natural history department and finally shown on C4. Hunting programming should be a function of sports departments, not natural history units.

Filming Catching The Impossible

YouTube gives us a world audience. I have found different cultures have different views about what Fieldsports Channel does but there are, across the world, two debates about our output which run concurrently. The first is whether hunting is acceptable or too 'cruel' to show on television. This tends to be between a majority who favour hunting and a minority of anti-hunting activists who seek out hunting online and troll it, hack it and abuse it.

The second is the debate about whether brutality to animals is acceptable or not, and where to draw the line on films that show gratuitous violence towards animals, inhumane slaughter, and the abandonment of what the Americans call 'fair chase' and what we British call 'sportsmanship' that neither adequately describe how to treat the wildlife we hunt.

I am always happy to debate the first point - and that was why I became the subject of a fox-lovers' feeding frenzy when I appeared on the C4/More4 show Foxes Live vs Brian May last year. But I think it is more valuable to debate the second.

On the set at Foxes Live

So Adam, if you read this far, I expect we would disagree about much of the natural world if we met, but good work so far - now start a crusade.

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