Helena Horton, The Telegraph, October 4, 2018
Sir David Attenborough has said the BBC still needs “white men explaining things” in television programmes, after the editor of BBC Four said “the era of that has passed.”
The Blue Planet presenter gently contradicted Cassian Harrison, who told the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August: “There’s a mode of programming that involves a presenter, usually white, middle-aged and male, standing on a hill and ‘telling you like it is.’
“We all recognise the era of that has passed.”
Newsnight’s Evan Davis asked: “I don’t know if you heard in August, Cassian Harrison, the editor of BBC Four, said the BBC no longer wants TV shows in which white, middle aged men stand up and explain things. I’m sure he didn’t have you in mind.”
Chuckling, Sir David replied: “I’m sure he did, because that’s what I do.
“I don’t think [those days have] passed, I personally think there’s a place for that sort of thing, Blue Planet got one of the biggest audiences of documentaries in a long time. On the other hand I suppose he might say there wasn’t a lot seen of you. Which is absolutely true and a very good thing.”
The presenter said he thinks that experts are needed on television shows, to explain the topics clearly, adding: “But there are some things that you do require someone who knows about something, to tell you in terms which don’t have bogus illustrations they don’t try and pretend to explain something with a diagram that can’t be explained in that way.”
Britain’s most-watched television show last year was Sir David’s Blue Planet II, with 14 million viewers.
The BBC has pledged to make its programmes less male-heavy after being widely criticised for its pay report, in which most of the highest-earning stars were men.
In April, the broadcaster promised to insist half of the expert voices heard on news and current affairs programmes are women by next year.
By early 2019, the corporation aims to have an equal number of male and female expert contributors to topical shows, as it increases the number of women on air.
This change is not limited to news programmes; yesterday the BBC announced that Zoe Ball would be the first female host of Radio 2’s breakfast show.
The interview with Sir David was held to mark the release of his new book Life On Earth and he also discussed allegations of TV trickery in nature broadcasting.
He told Evan Davis that captive animals are sometimes best used to illustrate the scientific points made. Sir David said if programmes illustrate their stories with “a polar bear that happened to have been born in a zoo, and you could never get that in the wild without risking the polar bear’s life or indeed your own — then that’s biology. That’s perfectly fair”. He said: “Some programmes set out to deceive and some do not. “Nonetheless, there is a lot of veracity involved in just having the picture there and it’s fair dues for someone to say, ‘OK if you say that’s going to happen, show me’.”