Why BBC wildman Chris Packham just can’t stop ruffling feathers
Chris Packham, the BBC nature presenter and environmental campaigner, last week launched a legal challenge against the UK government over its plan to dilute key carbon commitments.
It was also announced that the bird charity Raptor Rescue had removed Packham as patron, partly, the group’s chairman said, because he ‘started to get more and more political in his views and that didn’t sit well with our members’.
The previous week, Packham had shared on Twitter a letter written to Ant and Dec complaining about what he sees as I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’s abuse of wildlife. He described it as ‘an anachronistic embarrassment’ that ‘betrays a dangerous disconnect between a world increasingly concerned with an environmental crisis, and a reckless and marginalised part of the media which doesn’t appear to give a shit’.
All in all, then, it’s been a typical fortnight in the life of the broadcaster who is often described in media coverage as the new David-Attenborough-in-waiting. Of course, Attenborough, who has enjoyed a reputation that borders on saintliness, is not renowned for making legal challenges to the government or using the word ‘shit’ in public letters to celebrities, but the times and manners move on.
However, the Attenborough trope is ‘a red herring’, according to the naturalist and former Springwatch producer Stephen Moss. ‘There cannot be a new David Attenborough,’ he says. ‘The media has changed. When David started, there were two TV channels. There are 50 people out there now who are the new David Attenborough.’
It’s a good point, but of that 50, Packham is by far the most prominent. It’s not just because he’s been fronting Springwatch, Autumnwatch (before it was axed) and Winterwatch for the past 14 years, or that he wrote a bestselling autobiography bringing attention to his Asperger’s. It’s also because he has become a highly vocal champion of environmental and ecological causes.
His willingness to weigh in with his opinion is not to everyone’s tastes. The Countryside Alliance made a formal complaint against him back in 2015, after he wrote an article in BBC Wildlife magazine complaining about the failure of British conservation organisations to confront fox hunting and badger culling.
Last year, it again accused him of contravening BBC guidelines on impartiality after he tweeted his support for hunt saboteurs. Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, says- ‘We believe he’s used his position at the BBC to promote an extreme and partial agenda.’
He compares Packham’s position to that of Gary Lineker, who was briefly suspended earlier this year after a controversial tweet, and he wants to see the naturalist reined in. ‘It’s a classic example of someone whose views are becoming increasingly extreme as a result of operating in the echo chamber of social media,’ says Bonner.
Hugh Warwick is a ‘hedgehog-loving ecologist’ who is familiar with the silos that people retreat into with contentious debates, but says that Packham ‘approaches these issues through a scientific lens for the most part’. Warwick, like Moss, is a big fan of the presenter. ‘He is one of the few people I’ve met who I would class as truly remarkable,’ says Warwick. He speaks of his ‘profound respect’ for Packham’s courage, but also of his ‘deep vulnerability’ which he hides, or masks. ‘His attachment to the natural world is very deep, and that leaves you vulnerable,’ says Warwick, ‘because you’re vulnerable to grief.’
Packham is also, it seems, vulnerable to attack. Warwick says he visited him at his home in the New Forest shortly after the gates to his property ‘were firebombed by people unknown’. The presenter has also received death threats and, according to Warwick, has had to use bodyguards in some public performance situations. All of which seems like an over-the-top response to a man who is, essentially, interested in the plight of badgers and the effects of palm oil plantations on equatorial rainforests. But Packham is one of those characters who provokes exaggerated reactions in supporters and adversaries alike.
Of his tendency to inspire strong antipathy in some people, he’s said- ‘If you stick your neck out, you’ve got to expect to have your head cut off from time to time.’
Earlier in his career, his readiness to be the focus of attention was seen by some colleagues as a desperate desire to make a name for himself. ‘When I first knew him, he was just naked ambition,’ says Nicola Davies, co-presenter with Packham in the 1980s of BBC1 children’s programme The Really Wild Show. ‘He’s matured enormously as a broadcaster and as a human being.’
Moss describes him as an ‘absolute delight’ to work with, ‘a professional. He’s not remotely egotistical.’
As an on-stage interviewer, Moss has watched him close-up on talking tours, where Packham was deeply affected by the number of people who came up to him and thanked him for helping their child or grandchild by making them feel less isolated by autism or Asperger’s.
On one occasion, he told the audience that an aspect of his Asperger’s meant he didn’t like shaking people’s hands. ‘We got to the end of the talk,’ recalls Moss, ‘there was a round of applause, and Chris shook my hand.’ The point, he says, is that he’s learned to adjust his behaviour to match societal expectations, even if he doesn’t feel comfortable with them.
An outsider as a child, more at ease in the company of animals than schoolfriends, Packham took a BSc in zoology at Southampton University, where he found a kind of personal affirmation in the DIY drama of punk rock, ‘that explosive determination to do something different at all costs’, as he once put it.
After abandoning a PhD to train as a cameraman, he was persuaded by his sister, the fashion designer Jenny Packham, to try out on the other side of lens, which led to Mike Beynon appointing him co-presenter on The Really Wild Show in 1986.
Moss remembers meeting him in that period. ‘He was very young, different, original, quite an unusual guy for a TV presenter,’ he says.
But when the show ended in 1995, Packham was 34 and no longer the fresh-faced boy. For a while, he went the way of many children’s presenters who’d got older and largely disappeared from mainstream view on the regional TV circuit. ‘He was a youthful star and then became, like many presenters as they age, left on the shelf,’ says Moss.
It wasn’t until he landed the Springwatch gig in 2009, taking over from Bill Oddie, that Packham began to become a household name. His workload ever since has been nothing short of prolific, particularly combined with his many external roles – he is vice-president of the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and Butterfly Conservation. He is also patron of Population Matters, and has argued that people should have fewer children.
He is childless himself but has a stepdaughter, his fellow presenter Megan McCubbin, daughter of his former partner, the nurse Jo McCubbin. For the past decade, he has been in a relationship with zoo owner Charlotte Corney, although they don’t live together.
It will be interesting to see whether Packham’s new battle with the government will lead to any kind of BBC censure. In the past, the BBC has maintained that, as he was not involved in news reporting, and was technically freelance, he was not obliged to keep his political opinions to himself. Post-Lineker, that line may be more difficult to hold.
Moss says he’s surprised Packham has never gone to Channel 4, like other maverick figures such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, ‘two examples of people who realised that to get across their views they would have to leave the BBC’.
Perhaps it’s because the BBC is the perfect home for Packham. It may be a complicated relationship, but then Packham is a complicated man. If he is not Attenborough, he is very definitely Packham, and on the way to becoming a kind of environmental institution in his own right.
(News Source -Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Times Of Nation staff and is published from a www.theguardian.com feed.)
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