Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012): The Earth’s Reporter

Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012) - The Earth's Reporter

I wrote a brief blog post about the death of my colleague, mentor and one time boss Robert Lamb. His funeral is being held in London today. Here are a few more reflective thoughts about the larger implications of his work and legacy. Caution: this is not objective journalism.

Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012): The Earth’s Reporter

Robert Paul Lamb (1952 – 2012) was a planetary scale story teller. He used simple words and well chosen moving images to show us how we are abusing the only habitable planet we have.

He excelled in the world’s most pervasive mass medium, television. He effectively turned the small screen into a ‘mirror’ that showed how humans are constantly living beyond our natural means…as if we have spare planets in store.

For nearly three decades, Robert Lamb reported about the Earth to people all over the Earth. He ‘zoomed in’ to far corners of the planet to get a closer look at what was going on. He regularly ‘zoomed out’ for the bigger picture. All his life he probed why, as the Brundtland Commission had memorably noted in its 1987 report, “The Earth is one but the world is not”.

In this quest, he interviewed some of the finest minds and most passionate activists on what needs to be done, and how to do it. He also showcased the work of researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs trying out solutions to our many problems of resource and energy use. He always cheered these pathfinders who are our best hopes in overcoming the current ecological and economic quagmires.

Robert’s work was not easily pigeonholeable, which confused many. He wasn’t making wildlife or natural history films, although he sometimes touched on the subject from a human interaction angle. Perhaps the best summing up of his line of work was given by Mahatma Gandhi, who, when asked for his views on Indian wildlife decades ago, replied: “Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles — but it is increasing in the towns!”

If this isn't wildlife, what is?

Robert documented life going wild with far-reaching consequences. In the spectrum of factual TV programme production, he occupied a niche best described as scientifically based environmental films: those that explore the crushing ‘ecological footprint’ modern humans are having on the rest of Nature and ecosystems.

Robert was a journalist first and last. Although he later straddled the worlds of media and development, his outlook was firmly rooted in journalism where he started his career. He had a firm grasp of scientific, economic and political realities that shaped international development.

From 1984 to 2002, he was founder director of the UK-based media charity Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) from 1984 to 2002. TVE was set up to harness the potential of television and video to raise environmental awareness and catalyse sustainable development debates in the developing world.

Heading TVE for nearly two decades, Robert commissioned, produced or co-produced dozens of documentaries on a broad range of issues and topics.

Some were straightforward ones that ‘connected the dots’ for intelligent viewers. Others investigated complex — often contentious — causes and effects of environmental degradation or social exclusion.

These efforts dovetailed on-going discussions at the time on sustainable development. The Brundtland Commission had just defined it as a pattern of economic growth that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Easier said than done in a world where many families could barely afford to think beyond their next meal while most governments chose not to see beyond the next election. Next generation thinking was rare then, as it is now. Only mavericks dare walk that path.

Besides, what exactly did that ideal mean for a subsistence farmer in Africa or a small entrepreneur in Asia? Did this long term view figure at all when politicians or bureaucrats struggled to balance their national budget or negotiate better terms of trade? How and where did women and children figure in these considerations?

Robert and his team followed the lofty intellectual debates and also tracked progress on the growing number of international treaties on specific environmental matters. They captured the essence of these through compelling moving image creations.

In doing so, this small band of individuals changed forever how environment was covered on TV. As he recalled in UNEP’s Our Planet magazine in 2000, “In the mid-1980s barely anyone had heard about the ozone layer or global warming. Natural history programming brought the wonders of plant and animal diversity into our living rooms but glossed over the complex causes of extinction.”

Robert was swimming against not one but several currents. As he wrote years later: “Television does not cope well with explaining the grey areas. Or rather it could — but the received wisdom is that it makes the viewer reach for the remote channel changer. Television prefers the black and white; the good guys versus the bad.”

He accomplished this through what I call the ‘triple-S formula’: mixing the right proportions of good Science and engaging Stories, told in Simple (but not simplistic) language.

He demystified jargon-ridden science and procedure-laden intergovernmental negotiations without losing their complexity or nuances. This is what public communication of science is all about.

We can only hope he isn’t our average TV viewer...but are we sure?

Always look for what’s New, True and Interesting (the NTI Test), he used to tell us who followed the trail he blazed. All our efforts ultimately hinged on how we appealed to the viewer – and she held that all-powerful remote controller in hand!

Robert’s overarching advice: never underestimate your audience’s intelligence — or overestimate its interest levels.

“If we don’t engage our audiences in the first 60 to 90 seconds, they are gone,” Robert often told his producers. “Hook them – and make it worth their while to do so!”

Most people don’t carry good memories of school. When they sit down to watch TV – usually at the end of a long day – they just want something light and pleasant, and preferably not reminded of school…

Pervasive as TV was, the medium wasn’t a substitute for reading or a classroom. At best, we could only flag the highlights of an issue, and whet the appetite for viewers to go after more.

Sympathetic as he was to issues and concerns of the developing world, Robert applied the same rigorous editorial criteria on film makers based in the global South. He pointed out the latter’s sweeping generalizations, condescending elitist language or incoherent story telling. Some walked away grumbling, but realized years later that he was right…

Robert’s fast pace and no-nonsense demeanour probably won him as many admirers as detractors. Producers dreaded his piercing questions about evidence and coherence. Over time, staff got used to his sharp text editing, usually done with a thick-tipped pen.

He was most assertive in (video) edit rooms, where I have seen him in action only on a few occasions. While TV productions involve team work, editorial decisions have to be centralised. You can’t make films by committee. As series editor or executive editor, he was the master of all he surveyed. Conversely, he stood by his producers who’d done their homework.

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