I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Inoffensiveness Equals Trustworthiness: BBC's David Attenborough

by Sakunthala Panditharatne
Dec. 21, 2011
I heard something weird a couple of days ago: “Love and good will to all? More like bias to all!” This was during a Christmas quiz where the other team was getting extra points - clearly unfair! - and my snarky friend and I found it hilarious (we love to nitpick). How ridiculous! You can’t have bias to all! That’s just called being fair! Oh you silly person.

However, I realized later, “bias to all” is a pretty damn good way to describe the BBC. It’s not so much an unbiased organization as a desperately inhibited one.  Famous cynic and Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker loves to hate on the BBC for being so egregiously inoffensive, and he’s not alone (“Political correctness gone mad!”). Sure, commentary isn’t the Beeb’s strong point. But its greatest weakness is also it’s greatest strength: the BBC prefers incontestable facts to edgy viewpoint, and perhaps as a result, the BBC makes some really good documentaries.

David Attenborough is the quintessential BBC broadcaster: a purveyor of solid information and scientific fact. He’s considered a national treasure (it’s actually Sir David Attenborough) and has honorary degrees from 29 British universities, a national record. There are even a few species named after him: attenborosaurus conybeari (a dinosaur), materpiscis attenboroughi (an extinct fish), blakea attenboroughi (an Ethiopian flowering plant), and of course, the Sir David's long-beaked echidna (that’s the technical term). Suffice it to say, documentary producers all over the world point to his work as an example of top quality television.

Why all the accolades? Well, David Attenborough’s documentaries were big, ambitious projects. He travelled with his camera team all over the world, documenting everything from volcanoes to army ants. When filming ‘The Living Planet’, the crew invented a custom scuba diving outfit with a large, fully enclosed faceplate, so that David Attenborough could speak underwater. When filming in rural Sudan, the David Attenborough and co. had to land their plane on a makeshift runway, as there were no airports or roads in that area. This was in the days before Google Earth. They were adventurers; they filmed where no filmmaker had filmed before.

‘The Living Planet’ is long, complex and ambitious, and jam-packed with information. But, even after 11 long hours of footage, the documentary doesn’t let you forget that it’s barely scratched the surface of the big, wide natural world.

Sakunthala Panditharatne is a maths student and pseudo-Bohemian loser. She spends maybe 80-90% of her time programming, writing and starting awesome projects, like her tumblr, theimaginaryhackathon.tumblr.com . The rest of the time she spends watching Malcolm in the Middle. She likes long, complicated novels and believes in the power of self-organization. Dave Eggers used to be her hero, but she’s kind of past that phase now.