I was interviewed by BBC Sinhala in London on 21 June 2016, on the eve of Sri Lanka’s Parliament passing the long-waited Right to Information law. In this interview with BBC’s Saroj Pathirana, I look at the journey so far (it took over 2o years to get this law adopted) and challenges than remain.
Chief among the challenges from now on: reorienting all state structures to be open and info-sharing rather than closed and secretive (default mode until now); raising public awareness on the provisions and benefits of RTI law (including debunking of myths and misconceptions); and learning to be a more information-literate society as a whole.
An impressive 81.52% of registered voters turned up, and their majority choice changed the regime. A well-oiled system that has been holding elections since 1931 proved its efficacy again. And if its integrity came under threat, the formidable Commissioner of Elections stood up for the due process.
As we pat ourselves on the back, however, let us remember: an election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a vibrant democracy. There is much more to democracy than holding free and fair elections.
The ‘sufficient conditions’ include having public institutions that allow citizens the chance to participate in political process on an on-going basis; a guarantee that all people are equal before the law (independent and apolitical judiciary); respect for cultural, ethnic and religious diversity; and freedom of opinion without fearing any repercussions. Sri Lanka has much work to do on all these fronts.
Democracy itself, as practised for centuries, can do with some ‘upgrading’ to catch up with modern information societies.
Historically, people have responded to bad governance by changing governments at elections, or by occasionally overthrowing corrupt or despotic regimes through mass agitation.
Yet such ‘people power’ has its own limits: in country after country where one political party – or the entire political system — was replaced with another through popular vote (or revolt), people have been disappointed at how quickly the new brooms lose their bristles.
The solution must, therefore, lie in not just participating in elections (or revolutions), but in constantly engaging governments and keeping the pressure on them to govern well.
In practice, we citizens must juggle it along with our personal and professional lives. As information society advances, however, new tools and methods are becoming available to make it easier.
This relatively new approach involves citizens gathering data, systematically analysing it and then engaging (or confronting, when necessary) elected and other officials in government. Citizens across the developing world are using information to improve the use of common property resources (e.g. water, state land and electromagnetic spectrum, etc.), and management of funds collected through taxation or borrowed from international sources.
Such engagement enables citizens as well as civil society organisations (CSOs) to engage with policymakers and citizen service providers. Some call it social accountability (or SAcc), and others refer to it as participatory democracy. Whatever the label, the idea is to ensure greater accountability in how the public sector manages public funds and responds to citizens’ needs.
For this to work, citizens need to access public sector information – about budgets, expenditures, problems and performance. Over 100 countries now have laws guaranteeing people’s right to information (RTI). Sadly, Sri Lanka is lagging behind all other SAARC countries, five of which have already enacted RTI laws and two (Afghanistan and Bhutan) have draft bills under consideration. Attempts to introduce RTI in Sri Lanka were repeatedly thwarted by the previous government.
An early champion of social accountability was the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto who has been researching on poverty, development and governance issues. He says: “Supposedly in a democracy, if the majority of people are poor, then they set the criteria of what is right. Yet all those mechanisms that allow [society] to decide where the money goes — and that it is appropriately allocated — are not in place throughout the Third World.”
The result? “We take turns electing authoritarian governments. The country, therefore, is left to the [whims] of big-time interests, and whoever funded the elections or parties. We have no right of review or oversight. We have no way for the people’s voice to be heard — except for eight hours on election day!”
It is this important right of review and oversight in between elections that SAcc promotes. Call it an ‘insurance’ against democracy being subverted by big money, corrupt officials or special interest groups…
A dozen years ago, concerned by development investments being undermined by pervasive corruption and excessive bureaucracy, the World Bank started advocating SAcc. Their research shows how, even in the most hopeless situations, ordinary people often come together to collect their voice and exert pressure on governments to be responsive.
“Social accountability is about affirming and operationalising direct accountability relationships between citizens and the state. It refers to the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account,” says a World Bank sourcebook on the subject. (See: http://go.worldbank.org/Y0UDF953D0)
What does that mean in plain language? Seeking to go beyond theory and jargon, the Bank funded a global documentary in 2003, which I co-produced. Titled ‘Earth Report: People Power’ and first broadcast on BBC in February 2004, it featured four inspiring SAcc examples drawn from Brazil, India, Ireland and Malawi (online: http://goo.gl/xQnr9v).
These case studies, among the best at the time, showed how SAcc concepts could be adapted in different societies and economic systems
In Porto Alegre, Brazil, community members participate annually in a series of meetings to decide on the City Budget. This material is presented to Parliament which finds it difficult to refuse the recommendations — because over 20,000 have contribute to its preparation. As many or more watch how the budget is spent.
In Rajasthan, India, an advocacy group named MKSS holds a public meeting where the affidavits of local candidates standing for the state elections are available to the people. This ‘right to information’ extends all the way down to villages where people can find out about public spending.
In Ireland, the government has partnered with trade unions, employers, training institutions and community groups on a strategy to deal with problems affecting youth (such as school drop-outs and high unemployment). Citizens set priorities for social spending.
In Malawi, villagers participate in assessing local health clinics by scoring various elements of the service. A Health Village Committee then meets the service providers who also assess themselves. Together, they work out ways to improve the service.
During the last decade, many more examples have emerged – some driven by public intellectuals, others by civil society groups or socially responsible companies. Their issues, challenges and responses vary but everyone is looking for practical ways to sustain civic engagement in between elections.
The development community has long held romanticized views on grassroots empowerment. While SAcc builds on that, it is no castle in the air: the rise of digital technologies, web and social media allows better monitoring, analysis and dissemination. And government monopolies over public information have been breached — not just by progressive policies and RTI laws but also by efforts such as WikiLeaks.
Confronted by the growing flood of often technical information, citizens need to be well organised and skilled to use in the public interest. Evidence-based advocacy is harder than rhetorical protests.
Dr Bela Bhatia, then an associate fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in India, says on the film: “Ultimately the responsibility in a democracy is ours…and if today we have corrupt politicians, it is because we have allowed corruption to happen, to take root.”
Rather than debating endlessly on how things became so bad, SAcc promoters show a way forward – with emphasis on collaboration, not confrontation.
“It’s up to the governments to make up their mind whether they want to respect the more participatory model or invite more confrontation, to invite violence and perhaps ultimately the dismantling of the very democratic system,” says Bhatia.
How can we deepen our democracy with SAcc? Start with RTI, and see what happens.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I return to the oft-discussed topic of social media in today’s Lankan society.
If media mirror the realities of its land and times, don’t social media reflect its society as well? And if some among us don’t like what is expressed by fellow citizens using social media platforms, could it be that many inconvenient issues and questions – excluded in the mainstream media – are being raised?
Yes, we need to discuss the social, cultural and political implications of growing social media use. However, that debate will not be served by insular and insecure mindsets that see every aspect of globalization as a threat or conspiracy.
The first ever book on astronomy I owned as a kid, a pocket guide to the night sky, was written by an Englishman named Patrick Moore.
Armed with the tattered book, I joined night sky observation sessions of the Young Astronomers’ Association, formed in the mid 1980s.
Hormones-on-legs that we all were at the time, we were interested in ‘heavenly bodies’ at both ends of the telescope. But we couldn’t have had a better guide to the celestial wonders than the erudite yet eminently accessible Patrick Moore.
Indeed, Sir Patrick Moore, who died on December 9 aged 89, was the world’s best known public astronomer for nearly half a century.
Although he wrote over 70 books on astronomy and space, it was his television work that made him such a household name. He hosted a monthly TV show, called The Sky at Night, demystifying the night sky and space travel for ordinary people.
The show started on BBC Television in April 1957 – six months before the Space Age dawned. For 55 years, the low-budget show has chronicled highs and lows of the entire the Space Age and brought the wonders of the night sky into the living rooms of millions.
Sir Patrick presented it for 55 and six months, doing a total of 720 episodes. He missed it just once, in July 2004, when he was hospitalized for a few days with food poisoning.
The show has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest-running programme with the same presenter in TV history. It’s unlikely to be broken.
He was essentially an amateur astronomer, albeit a serious and passionate one. He did some original mapping of the Moon’s surface in his younger days (used later by the both American and Russian space programmes), and headed a planetarium in Northern Ireland for a while in the 1960s, but he was largely self taught in the subject, and did mostly optical observations with his own telescopes.
Sir Patrick’s practical knowledge of astronomical observations and his brand of humour – together with his lovable eccentricity — made the TV show interesting to people from all walks of life while also those engaging seriously pursuing amateur astronomy.
But Sir Patrick insisted that it was the subject, not his style. When the show reached 50 years and over 650 episodes in early 2007, Sir Patrick explained its enduring appeal: “Astronomy’s a fascinating subject. You look up… you can’t help getting interested and it’s there. We’ve tried to bring it to the people…it’s not me, it’s the appeal of the subject.”
Over the years, the show has had some stellar guests. It included famous astronomers like Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan, Bernard Lovell and Martin Rees, rocket builder Wernher von Braun, and Moon landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Sir Patrick was centrally involved in the BBC’s coverage of the Moon Landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He is remembered as an excellent interviewer who brought out the best in his guests. It was mind-stimulating TV that was entertaining but not dumbed down.
One repeat guest was his long-standing friend Sir Arthur C Clarke, whom he first met through the British Interplanetary Society in the 1940s. They were both ‘space cadets’ when few people took space travel seriously.
In a tribute to the world’s most enduring astronomy show, Sir Arthur said in 2007: “Sky at Night has not been just a gee-whiz show of rockets, satellites and other expensive toys deployed by rich nations trying to outsmart each other. At its most basic, it’s a show about exploring that great laboratory within easy access to anyone, anywhere on the planet: the night sky.”
He added: “By the time the Space Age dawned, Patrick was well on his way to becoming the best known public astronomer in the world. The Sky at Night only consolidated a reputation that was well earned through endless nights of star-gazing, and many hours of relentlessly typing an astonishing volume of books, papers and popular science articles.”
In the 50th anniversary programme, broadcast in April 2007, Sir Patrick travelled back in time to see their first recording. He talked to his earlier self about astronomy back in 1957, and discussed how things have changed in half a century.
He then time travelled to 2057 where the ‘virtual’ Patrick, saved in the BBC computer, is celebrating 100 years of making The Sky at Night and talked to Dr Brian May about the discovery of life on Mars.
That same month, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) — the professional body that has sole authority to name celestial bodies –designated an asteroid as “57424 Caelumnoctu” in honour of the show. The number refers to the first broadcast date, and the name is Latin for “The Sky at Night”.
Earlier, the IAU had named asteroid No 2602 as “Moore” in his honour.
In 2001, the year he was knighted by the Queen for “services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting”, he became the only amateur astronomer ever to be inducted as an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. He also received a BAFTA Award (the British Oscar) for his broadcasting accomplishments.
Many of the world’s leading professional astronomers have acknowledged being inspired by Patrick Moore’s books and TV shows.
That includes the UK’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, FRS, who said in 2005: “I’m one of multitudes who owe their enthusiasm for astronomy to Patrick Moore. As a schoolboy I viewed, on the flickering screen of our family’s newly acquired black and white TV, his commentaries on the first Sputnik. I was transfixed…”
Sir Patrick’s influence extended well beyond the western world. Tributes have come in from everywhere.
Dr Nalin Samarasinha, Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, USA – and one of the very few Lankans to have an asteroid named after himself — said: “Certainly, I read some of his early books in the mid 1970s when I was an A/L student at Nalanda College, Colombo. They could be classified as an inspiration as well as a source of knowledge. This was in the era when there was no Internet and one needed to read books to learn about the field!”
Thilina Heenatigala, Project Coordinator of Astronomers Without Borders (AWB) that popularises astronomy, said: “He was a true ambassador of astronomy, bringing the Universe to the public. His work inspired me both as a kid and as an adult.”
Sir Patrick used his show also to counter pseudoscience beliefs such as the popular association of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) with alien beings. He sometimes investigated what he called ‘Flying Saucerers’ – people who were genuinely confused by natural or man-made objects in the sky that were unfamiliar and, therefore, presumed mysterious.
He showed how UFOs had nothing to do with alien creatures. Yet he believed in the prospects of life elsewhere in the universe.
He was once asked what he might say if a real Flying Saucer landed on his front lawn, and a little green man emerged. His reply: “I know exactly what I would say: ‘Good afternoon. Tea or coffee? Then do please come with me to the nearest television studio…’”.
He noted in his 2003 autobiography: “There is nothing I would like better than to interview a Martian, a Venusian or even a Saturnian, but somehow I don’t think that it is likely to happen.”
If that particular wish didn’t come to pass, Sir Patrick couldn’t complain. On and off the screen, he met an extraordinary array of famous Earthlings. Among them were Orville Wright, the very first man to fly a heavier-than-air machine, Albert Einstein (whose violin playing he accompanied on the piano), and Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, respectively the first man and women to travel to space.
Once, when Tereshkova was visiting London, Sir Patrick chaired a major meeting in the Festival Hall. A tough journalist asked her: “What qualities would you look for in a man going to the Moon?” The cosmonaut, who spoke good English, answered with a charming smile: “Do you mean if I was going too?”
As an active astronomer, TV host and public speaker, Sir Patrick travelled the world for over half a century, visiting all seven continents including Antarctica. He was especially fond of chasing total eclipses of the sun, one of the most spectacular events in Nature.
When not star gazing, he pursued many other interests. He freely admitted to being unathletic and uncoordinated, but was an avid cricketer, turning up for his home town Selsey’s Cricket Club well into his seventies.
Once, when asked on TV about his definition of Hell, he replied: “Bowling to a left-hander, on a dead wicket, with a Pakistani umpire.”
He also played the piano and xylophone until arthritis ruled it out. He never married because his fiancée was killed by a bomb during World War II, and lived in a rural house with his pet cats. He was fond of making home-made wine, for which he said “you can use almost anything, within reason” as raw material. Rose petal was his favourite.
Thank you, Sir Patrick, for being our genial guide to the night sky and space travel for over half a century.
This is the (Sinhala) text of my Sunday column in Ravaya newspaper on 5 August 2012. This week, I trace the moving images coverage of the Olympics, from the early days of cinema to the modern instantaneous live coverage that makes the whole world watch the Games as they unfold.
A few days ago, I was deeply saddened to hear the news that my mentor and colleague Robert Lamb is no more. He lost his battle with cancer on 13 Feb 2012. He was 59.
Robert will be greatly missed. He was a visionary mentor and a strong supporter of our ideal of Asians telling their own stories using TV, video and web. This was what he set up TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP) to do, back in 1996.
I was still in shock and grief when I wrote TVEAP’s official tribute, and a short statement of condolences. But Robert would have expected nothing less. The show must go on, he used to say, and getting the record right is very important.
Our statement opens: “Robert Lamb knew the power of moving images. For over three decades, he used them effectively to move people all over the world to reflect on how their daily actions impact their local environment and the planet.”
We also note how “Robert was very well informed, highly analytical yet kept an open mind for fresh angles and new perspectives. He inspired us without imposing his own views.”
Robert was an Englishman by birth, globalist in outlook and a planetary scale thinker and story teller. Unlike some activists and journalists, Robert practised Gandhi’s timeless advice: “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.
This is why I added this line to our statement: “He walked his talk, practising in personal life what he advocated in his films. If he breathed heavily in the edit room, he trod softly on the Earth.”
And that, more than any of his professional accomplishments in print, on TV and online, is how I shall always remember Robert Paul Lamb, on whose broad shoulders I continue to stand.
The BBC Trust – an independent body which safeguards the values of the publicly funded British Broadcasting Corporation – recently faulted the BBC Panorama series for faking child labour footage in India, apologised to the corporate house falsely implicated, and returned a prestigious TV award won by the 2008 programme concerned.
This was certainly a welcome move. But there is much more that the guardian of BBC values can and should investigate, among them the conduct of the BBC’s global TV broadcasting arm currently branded as BBC World News (earlier called BBC World TV). In this context, I want to draw attention to an op-ed essay I wrote in August 2007 that flagged an on-going practice where publicity-hungry development agencies were paying intermediaries who are apparently selling editorial coverage on BBC World. This is unethical and possibly illegal. I called it ‘Cheque-book development’.
The essay originally appeared in MediaChannel.org, an outspoken media-watch website produced from New York by the highly respected ‘News Dissector’ and media activist Danny Schechter. MediaChannel.org has since experienced funding difficulties and their online archive is currently not accessible. My op-ed also appeared, in full, at Asia Media Forum where it is still available.
I am reproducing the full text of my op-ed essay without any changes so it is more widely available. Despite expressions of dismay from fellow media watchers, there was no reaction of any kind from the BBC at the time. Let us hope the BBC Trust will now consider it worth looking into.
‘Cheque-book development’ corrupting the media?
By Nalaka Gunawardene (August 2007)
BLURB: In their ceaseless efforts to keep their organisations in the media spotlight, spin doctors of development agencies are distorting news values and corrupting the media, turning issue-based communication products into ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.
There is a new kind of ‘tout’ accosting development and humanitarian agency officials at international meetings.
These smart and well-heeled persons are not looking for a supply contract. In the age of spin, they are offering agencies ‘product placement’ – in the globalised news media.
“I can get your agency on BBC World,” is a common claim. In some quarters now, Al Jazeera International (AJI) is also being mentioned.
This is not an over-enthusiastic journalist looking for a scoop. These intermediaries are peddling the jealously-guarded access to highly visible news and current affairs TV channels.
Some are freelancers or stringers, while others are film production company executives. Their media access is hard earned: they all have track records of producing TV news features or documentaries to international broadcast standards.
There is only one problem: they are not supposed to sell this media access to the highest bidder.
But it happens more frequently than we suspect.
I have personally witnessed this kind of offer being made. Worryingly, the development community does not find anything ethically or morally wrong with this practice.
One possible reason: the competition among development and humanitarian organisations for public recognition has intensified in the past decade. Their communication officers are under tremendous pressure to raise the profile of their organisations -– and in some cases, of egotistic bosses.
So when a cash-for-media coverage opportunity comes along, it is too good to be missed.
The obvious question is hardly raised: how come access to a trusted news outlet is being marketed? Instead, many development professionals simply ask: how much?
The answer depends on how many precious seconds of air time, on which broadcast outlet and for what kind of story. But we are not talking about small change: some of these deals involve fifty or hundred thousand US dollars.
And those funds are drawn from the already tight communication budgets of development and humanitarian agencies.
At Asia Media Summit 2006 in Kuala Lumpur, the regional communication chief of a leading UN agency told me how she’d worked with such an ‘access peddler’ to get a post-tsunami story on BBC World TV. The few minutes of coverage almost drained her budget – but the agency management was highly pleased with their ‘few minutes of fame’.
I found that it was not a BBC staffer but a freelancer who was involved. Money had exchanged hands, though I didn’t find out how much, or on what kind of contractual arrangement it was done.
This is not an isolated incident. As development organisations compete more intensely for external funding, they are increasingly adopting desperate strategies to gain higher media visibility for their names, logos and bosses.
Communication officers in some leading development and humanitarian organisations have been reduced to publicists. When certain UN agency chiefs tour disaster or conflict zones, their spin doctors precede or follow them. Some top honchos now travel with their own ’embedded journalists’ – all at agency expense.
In this publicity frenzy, these agencies’ communication products are less and less on the issues they stand for or reforms they passionately advocate. Instead, the printed material, online offerings and video films have become ‘logo delivery mechanisms’.
The access peddlers know this weakness very well, and have turned it into a veritable cottage industry.
It’s not just the development sector’s vanity that fuels this process. Many 24/7 news channels are struggling to fill their hours inexpensively. Some turn a blind eye to ethical sourcing as long as they can have a steady supply of subsidised content.
Some media outlets are harder to penetrate than others. CNN International regulations prevent access peddling by its staff or intermediaries. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in the United States does not allow interviews with representatives of any entity sponsoring the production or broadcast of a programme.
Sadly, not every broadcaster is as careful.
This practice is wrong on two counts. One, allowing intermediaries to sell access to the airwaves is a form of corruption. Two, every time this happens, it siphons off tax-payer supported development funds intended for combating poverty and suffering in the majority world.
It is the reverse of cheque-book journalism, where some media organisations pay celebrity or other sources for exclusive access to their stories. When development agencies are paying sections of the media to get promotional or favourable stories aired, we must call it ‘cheque-book development’.
Some practitioners might argue that the end justifies the means. But beyond narcissism, the development benefit of logo-delivery media coverage is highly debatable.
Journalistic stories, whether on development, humanitarian or any other topic, must earn their place in the media on their intrinsic value. Despite greater corporatisation of the media, a good story can still stand up on its own.
Attaching cash to a development story seriously distorts those news values, making it harder for other development players to get rightful media coverage for their stories.
The origins of this unhealthy trend dates back to at least the 1970s, when the World Bank and some UN agencies started buying air time on public television networks to broadcast promotional films. Throwing money was a lot easier than working with producers to generate sustained coverage on issues of public interest. This spoilt the chances for others who were not willing or able to buy airtime but had public interest content to offer.
Paradoxically, the same development agencies take to the moral high ground on transparency and corruption in the global south. But as they broker more cash-for-media coverage deals behind the scenes, we are left gasping at the hypocrisy of it all.
Nalaka Gunawardene writes on media, development and society. The views in this essay are entirely his own. He can be reached on and he blogs at https://movingimages.wordpress.com
BBC had earlier won the Current Affairs Home Prize at the Royal Television Society awards for its show Primark: On The Rack, which was first broadcast on BBC 1 channel in June 2008.
In an internal investigation, the BBC Trust – an independent body which safeguards the values of the publicly funded corporation – found that it ‘more likely than not’ that certain footage in the Panorama programme was not authentic.
The implicated retailer, Primark, criticised the BBC for taking so long to find in its favour when evidence casting doubt on some of the video material has been in the corporation’s possession since before the documentary first aired in 2008.
BBC Panorama claims to be the world’s longest running investigative TV show, and has been on the air for more than 50 years. In that time, it has done some excellent exposures on matters of vital public interest.
Yet hinting a decline in both editorial and ethical standards at the BBC, the reporting team was found to have taken liberties with certain visuals in this particular programme. It investigated Primark’s claims that it can deliver ‘cheap, fast fashion’ without breaking ethical guidelines, and included footage obtained in a Bangalore workshop of three boys carrying out an activity described in the programme as ‘testing the stitching’ on Primark garments.
According to the Daily Mail: “The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee examined evidence such as the unedited ‘rushes’ of the programme and emails to the production team from the freelance journalist Dan McDougall, who obtained the footage.”
BBC Trustee and Chair of the ESC Alison Hastings said after their investigations: “The BBC’s investigative journalism is rightly held in very high regard, and for more than fifty years Panorama has made a very significant contribution to that. But great investigative journalism must be based on the highest standards of accuracy, and this programme on Primark failed to meet those standards. While it’s important to recognise that the programme did find evidence elsewhere that Primark was contravening its own ethical guidelines, there were still serious failings in the making of the programme. The Trust would like to apologise on behalf of the BBC to Primark and to the audience at home for this rare lapse in quality.”
Despite all these developments, the BBC Panorama official web page for this programme shows no indication of this turn of events. Accessed on at 01:30 GMT on 30 June 2011, the page says it was “last updated at 13:31 GMT, Wednesday, 18 June 2008 14:31 UK”. No apology, no correction, no link to the BBC Trust’s report.
The programme’s blurb still reads: “Panorama puts Primark’s claims that it can deliver cheap, fast fashion without breaking ethical guidelines to the test. Posing as industry buyers in India, the programme’s reporter Tom Heap and his team find some of India’s poorest people working long, gruelling hours on Primark clothes in slum workshops and refugee camps.”
So who puts the BBC Panorama to test? Are investigative journalists above the ethics of journalism because their work is hazardous, and is ultimately meant to be in the public interest?
Even Homer nods, and the best intended investigative journalists can – and do – make occasional mistakes. The important question is whether this was a bona fide error in judgement, or does it suggest a trend where the BBC’s investigative journalists and producers arrogantly believe that the end justifies the means?
Many documentaries rely on re-enactments for certain scenes, which are usually labelled as such. Does exposing child labour in supply chains give the license for do-gooding journalists to manipulate individuals and images to suit a preconceived notion of a corporation’s complicity? Could they not have resorted to other means – perhaps with less dramatic visuals, but more honest in their sourcing?
Does this rare admission of error on the part of the BBC also raise questions about the integrity of some other hard-hitting and controversial Panorama investigations over the years which have taken on some big-time targets such as the Vatican, the United Nations Peace Keepers or the CIA?
Hard questions indeed for the usually self-righteous Auntie Beeb.
Amanda Theunissen, who has worked with the BBC Natural History Unit and National Geographic Television, gave a straight answer: yes, there is such a charmed circle.
And although she didn’t say it in so many words, it was clear from our overall discussions that the circle is jealously guarded, and it’s not easy for any newcomer to break into it. And the entry barrier becomes harder if the film maker is from the global South.
I opened the panel recalling the opening sentence of Our Common Future, the 1987 Report by the World Commission on Environment and Development: “The Earth is one but the world is not”. I said: “A similar disparity exists in wildlife and natural history film making. We are all covering the same planet Earth in all its splendour and diversity. But on this planet there are many different worlds of film making.”
I asked my five panelists — Amanda Theunissen and Dominic Weston from the UK, and Delon Weerasinghe, Anoma Rajakaruna, and Taya Diaz from Sri Lanka — to address three key challenges faced by all wildlife and natural history film makers everywhere: the art of effective story telling; fund raising to make films; and ensuring wide distribution of the films made.
The panel discussion was lively, wide-ranging and engaged the audience which comprised mostly aspiring film makers or film students. I didn’t want our discussion to scare any of them away from a career in environment and wildlife film making. But at the same time, we wanted to acknowledge the practical realities — and disparities — that exist within and across countries in this respect.
I’ve now written up a summary of the panel discussion for TVE Asia Pacific news. Its heading comes from a provocative question I asked during the panel: does wildlife film making operate on almost Darwinian rules?
If we put a cash price on the economic services that, say, watersheds or insects or coastal mangroves provide, would we value Nature more? Would we be prepared to change our ways of measuring wealth and economic growth? And if we did, would that slow down the extinctions and collapse of ecosystems?
These are some of the issues that are explored in Nature, Inc., a path-breaking TV documentary series that puts a price-tag on environmental services such as forests, wildlife and coral reefs.
First broadcast in 2008 and 2009 on BBC World News, Nature Inc. broke new ground for environmental programming by seeking out a new breed of investor – those who believe they can make money out of saving the planet.
Watch Nature, Inc. series trailer:
Nature Inc. offers new insights into valuing the benefits of natural systems and biodiversity. It takes its lead from economists who have worked out that ecosystem services are worth more than the total of all the world’s national economies.
The first and second series are now available from TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP). Each series comprises six half-hour episodes, compacting stories filmed in different parts of the world. Broadcast, civil society and educational users across the Asia Pacific may order copies at the cost of duplication and dispatch, and without having to pay a license fee.
“There is new green thinking out there and some of it is grappling with pricing renewable assets. As such we felt it was a legitimate new area to take as an organising theme for the new series,” says Robert Lamb, series producer of Nature, Inc. “Perhaps the global recession has made viewers more aware of the ‘eco’ in economics”.
The series is based on new research and analysis being done on the subject. Among these new studies is the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), a major international initiative to draw attention to the global economic benefits of biodiversity, to highlight the growing costs of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation, and to draw together expertise from the fields of science, economics and policy to enable practical actions moving forward.
But adding a price tag to Nature is not something that pleases all scientists or activists. Robert says the producers received “an overwhelmingly positive reaction” to the first series, but there was also a small minority who wrote in to say they hated the premise of the whole series.
He adds: “That’s good, we want to foster discussion in Nature Inc. which is why we are encouraging viewers to contribute ideas for the next series.”
Here’s a sample episode from the series, titled Coral Cashpoint. In this, Nature Inc investigates a claim that our coral reefs are worth $30 billion a year. In this fourth episode, we go diving on the Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives and to the bottom of the North Sea to find out how coral reefs supply 500 million of us with food and work. But we are destroying the reefs so quickly, they could vanish entirely in less than a hundred years.