I want to be alone

The idea that animals have a ‘right’ to privacy is a trojan horse for even madder ideas, says TIMANDRA HARKNESS

YOU MIGHT not think so from some of what passes for ‘factual entertainment’ television, but programme makers do follow some ethical guidelines.

Members of the public generally need to give their consent before any footage of them can be broadcast, including things that were secretly filmed to elicit a genuine, unguarded response. The broadcast of certain things, including children, scenes of injury and death or (ahem) intimacy, is regulated by OFCOM or the BBC Trust.

If broadcasters do infringe privacy, ‘the broadcaster should be able to demonstrate that the public interest outweighs the right to privacy’. But obviously, privacy is one thing that wildlife film-makers don’t have to take into account.

I say ‘obviously’, but a recently-published academic paper argues that the likes of David Attenborough should be worrying about whether secretive reptiles mating underground have a right to privacy. After all, they’ve chosen not to do it in a public place, (unlike the exhibitionist lions of the Serengeti), which suggests that they don’t want the whole neighbourhood watching.

Dr Brett Mills of the University of East Anglia is a senior lecturer in the School of Film and Television Studies. His new paper, ‘Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy’ (Continuum Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, April 2010) questions the distinction between filming humans–– who are expected to consent to invasions of their privacy – and animals.

‘An assumption is made here about the differences between humans and animals,’ he says. ‘Human notions of privacy which rest on ideas of location or activity are ignored in terms of animals. It doesn’t matter what an animal does, or where it does it, it will be deemed fair game for the documentary.’

Sounds like an April Fool, no? Or an attempt at fast-track entry to ‘pseuds corner’ and other ‘Is this what Universities spend our tax money on?’ columns. But no, it was deemed serious enough to get a slot on BBC Radio 4’s PM news programme, less than a week before a UK General Election.

Dr Mills made his point, that the kind of ethical debates we have about filming humans, we don’t have about filming animals. And then presenter and wildlife expert Chris Packham responded. Packham argued, as a zoologist, that other species can’t really be deemed to have any concept of privacy, and therefore the idea of infringing it makes no sense.

But instead of leaving it there, he felt he had to justify his work a bit more. Unlike programmes with human subjects, where a ‘public interest’ argument might justify the discomfort of human subjects to benefit the audience, it seems wildlife film-makers put the welfare of the animals first every time. ‘Their security is our prime concern’.

What’s more, the fact that these programmes are visually lush and intellectually restful entertainment for a Sunday evening is apparently not enough. No, they’re justified because they’re ‘also incredibly educational, and a means of the viewers engaging with the subject’. Which is the most important thing, it seems.

‘That engagement is our goal, because if people are brought into the animals’ lives, they develop a fascination, an understanding and empathy with them, then they are far more concerned about their conservation. And when you think of the vast number of animal species… on the planet at the moment which are imperilled by our problems that we have foisted upon them, then I think these should be greater concerns than whether we are intruding upon their rather anthropomorphic privacy’.

That’s told us. Wildlife programmes are a good thing, not because they make lush viewing, but because they’re a great way to make us all feel guilty about what we’re doing to those poor animals that we’ve just watched tenderly raising their young in a fragile eco-system, etc. etc.

This may seem like an obscure postmodern non-debate, but the ideas it reflects are complete mainstream. Take the recent announcement that India is to cut down on ‘tiger tourism’ to protect dwindling tiger populations. Heated debates argued the pros and cons of such tourism, mainly from the viewpoint of the endangered animals, rather than the tourists or indeed the locals whose livelihoods may be at stake.

Writer Simon Barnes, in the Times, for example, defends wildlife tourism because it puts a monetary value on nature, which encourages conservation and discourages turning wild places into industrial zones. He also notes the importance of local employment.

But his central defence of wildlife tourism is that seeing a tiger, leopard or whale ‘makes people aware of the fragility of the planet and the folly of our short-term thinking. Above all, it prompts people to step back from our traditional species chauvinism.’ Again, the fact that seeing wildlife might just be fun, that enjoying your holiday is reason enough to pay an uninvited visit to a distant and exotic species, is not an acceptable reason to do it.

In his final paragraph, Barnes tells us that enthusiasts like him, who will travel responsibly to look with awe and respect on the ‘great beasts’ are not the problem here. Because, ‘it is not tourists that are killing off tigers: it is, above all, the world’s ever-increasing human population, and its incontinent need for room to live in’.

Well, excuse me for having been born. And now, I’m going to switch channels and watch Top Gear. If that’s not invading the privacy of the cars, that is.