Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why I'm over Attenborough

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 11.)

THERE ARE some people you’re just not supposed to criticise. The sainted Sir David Attenborough, who has just celebrated 60 years making wildlife documentaries, is one.
We have grown up with Attenborough. My children and I were captivated by his landmark series Life on Earth 30 years ago. There has probably never been a better natural history programme.

His documentaries continue to set standards for their breathtaking photography and inspired use of music.
Yet I’m over Attenborough. I started to have my doubts at the time of his Frozen Planet series in 2011, when scenes showing a polar bear and her newborn cubs, purportedly filmed in the Arctic wild, were revealed as having been shot in a European zoo using fake snow.

Attenborough’s defence of the deception – namely, that it would have ruined the effect to say, “Oh, by the way, this was shot in a zoo” – said a lot about his attitude toward keeping faith with viewers.
Since then I have watched him more critically. I believe Attenborough, for all the good he has done, has become very adept at manipulating viewers’ emotions. 

He consistently anthropomorphises the creatures he’s filming – in other words, encourages us to think of them as behaving and feeling like humans. This ramps up the emotional impact of the programmes, because who can’t feel teary at the sight of a forlorn-looking polar bear apparently adrift on an ice floe?
This is a technique originally perfected by Walt Disney and used with great success by production companies like Pixar, but we expect more of BBC wildlife programmes.

I have also found myself questioning Attenborough’s honesty. It strains credulity when he purports to single out one juvenile wildebeest from several thousand, as he did recently, and follow its struggle for survival. It seems far more likely that his crew filmed several young wildebeest in life-threatening situations and then presented it as the story of one individual heroically prevailing against the odds. Disney would have been impressed.
It makes gripping television, but I just don’t buy it.  

* * *

EVERYONE I know seems to have a story about the frustrations of dealing with council bureaucracies.
Try to build a simple garage to keep your car out of the weather, and you’re bombarded with engineering requirements more appropriate to the construction of a nuclear reactor.

Apply for consent to build a standard house – which these days requires submitting hundreds of pages of documents – and you can expect to wait the full 20 working days allowed before getting a response, only then to be told that you’ve overlooked some minor technical detail and will have to put your builder off until it’s been rectified.
Seek permission to launch a modest coffee trailer to cater to passers-by on a popular walkway, and prepare yourself to be treated as if you’re proposing an aluminium smelter in a national park. 

On no account, in any of the above circumstances, should you expect constructive advice as to how you might overcome the obstacles in your path. Council functionaries exist to tell you what you can’t do, not to make helpful suggestions. 
My own council has been co-operative in my very limited dealings with it, but I know plenty of people who tear their hair out with chagrin at having to jump through endless regulatory hoops.

Politicians must hear such complaints all the time, yet seem either powerless or unwilling to act. Councillors must get an earful too, but the rule-bound bureaucrats always prevail. That’s where the real power resides.
The standard explanation, of course, is that catastrophes such as leaky buildings and slipshod construction standards exposed by the Christchurch earthquakes have forced councils to be more diligent. The exquisite irony is that these were the results of councils’ own failings, yet the hapless citizen ends up carrying the can.

* * *

A RECURRING lament in 2012 was that New Zealand has an intolerable level of poverty. Kids go to school hungry, families live in sub-standard accommodation, benefits are inadequate and wages are not high enough to provide a satisfactory standard of living.
People are right to be concerned about cold, damp homes and children who lack adequate food and clothing. No one benefits from such deprivation.

But what’s striking is that the lobby groups demanding government action seem to think the problems of poverty can be eliminated at a stroke by increasing welfare payments, providing children with free medical care and meals in schools, raising the minimum wage and building more rental housing.  Just like that.
Like the Greens with their money-printing plans, they propose seductively simplistic solutions for very complex problems.

They prefer not to think about where the money comes from; too hard.



Max Ritchie said...

No doubt in some cases these "simple" solutions would make a diference, such as when a child goes to school without breakfast because Mum is sick that morning. But when the food is absent because Mum spends her benefit on pokies or at the pub (or more likely both) then an increased benefit will simply mean more pokies and pub. What the solution is is a very good question but it clearly is not to simply increase welfare - that's part of the problem.

Max Ritchie said...

Just to continue that theme ie that welfare is not the only answer but frequently itself the problem, the report of the 83 year old who claimed an unemployment benefit under a false name for 25 years is a good example of the Welfare State's failings. A system which allows this needs revision (an understatement; it actually needs a major rethink). How was this not detected? Surely welfare recipients are interviewed frequently? Or should be. And after a period - say 2 years - the beneficiary should go onto a much closer degree of supervision and when deemed unemployable a different form of benefit is needed. The "money grows on trees" brigade would just print some more of course.