It has been another great TV series, popular with young and old alike. So does it really matter that the BBC gave viewers the false impression that every bit of its Frozen Planet series was shot in the wild? Yes it does. It was revealed last week that its pictures of cute polar bear cubs being nursed underground were actually shot in a man-made den in a Dutch zoo. This matters because apparent fakery can be used by critics to attack the BBC itself.
In the same way, RTE's grave failure of judgment in respect of its treatment and defamation of Fr Kevin Reynolds was last week used by its competitors to attack that station. Publicly owned TV stations set an industry standard. If we cannot trust them, then what stations can we trust? RTE's internal guidelines for programme-makers insist that: "It is important when viewing and listening to News, Current Affairs and Factual programming that the public believes in the authenticity of what they see on the screen and hear on the radio. When reconstructions are necessary as part of the narrative of programmes, they must always be identified as such."
David Attenborough's Frozen Planet is the latest in a sequence of stunning nature programmes from the BBC that have captured the beauty of this Earth at a time when it is threatened by climate change and overpopulation.
When the BBC launched Frozen Planet, it claimed quite rightly to be giving viewers "an incredible insight into the last great wilderness on Earth -- the polar regions". But there was surely unintended irony when it added that, "the programmes show us the Arctic and Antarctic as they have never been seen before -- and may never be seen again".
And that was certainly true, because one of the Arctic sequences was actually shot in the Netherlands. The BBC later explained that: "it would be quite impossible for our cameras to film inside a den in the wild without disturbing the female. For this reason, the polar bear den sequence was filmed in controlled conditions".
Fair enough. But far less convincing, as the BBC struggled last week to justify its failure to label the sequence as shot in a zoo, was its further claim that: "We also ensured the narration was carefully worded so it didn't mislead the audience and talked in general about polar bears in the wild rather than the specific cubs shown."
While the BBC did not literally lie, it did create a false impression. Some may argue that this does not matter in nature programmes, that it is a kind of poetic licence. The BBC itself claims that: "This type of filming is standard practice across the industry when creating natural history programmes." So viewers are being misled all of the time?
The BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, went even further and argued before a committee of MPs that people actually prefer not to be told when footage is artificially created, rather than filmed in the wild. He claimed: "Some years ago we asked the public whether they would prefer if there were 'on air' mentions -- either captions or labels -- and the overwhelming response was that they did not want us to do that."
The idea that viewers prefer to be deluded is unconvincing. And then Thompson also suggested that some of the media's reporting of the polar bear sequence may have been malicious. He wondered if the fuss is really about polar bears or about the BBC's coverage of the current Leveson inquiry into phone hacking.
Maybe it is. But, if so, the BBC itself has given its enemies the ammunition, just as Prime Time has given detractors a stick with which to beat RTE.
And last week the umbrella body of commercial broadcasters seized on RTE's error. "The flawed manner in which the State-owned broadcaster has responded to what must stand as one of the worst defamations in the history of Irish broadcasting must now permit a closer look at how RTE is regulated and funded," said Tim Collins, Board member of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland and CEO of Ocean FM in Sligo.
Collins claimed that, "it took a request from the minister" for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to initiate an investigation into the Prime Time error. However, the BAI reached its decision to commence an investigation having regard to a number of factors of which the minister's request was just one. Others included the legislative obligation placed on the BAI to represent the public interest and significant public concern in relation to the programme.
Regulators such as the BAI strive continually to uphold standards precisely because public trust is undermined by major errors. Back in 1969 the current affairs department in RTE was weakened for years when the Fianna Fail government of the day launched an inquiry into a current affairs investigation of illegal money-lending in Dublin. RTE had failed to label some innocuous scenes of money and children's allowance books changing hands as reconstructions, and this was seized upon to undermine its entire credibility.
Today, publicly owned broadcasters face widespread competition. Some of the content of commercially purchased programmes, on satellite channels or elsewhere, may not be what it seems. Sequences are sometimes provided free to producers by commercial or state interests without this fact being clear, and funding from vested interests may have compromised what is shown or said without that funding being made obvious to the viewer.
But that is all the more reason why publicly owned channels must maintain high standards. It is in the public interest, and in the interest of the BBC and RTE themselves, that they clearly label sequences as reconstructions when those scenes are not actually what they might otherwise seem to an ordinary viewer.
Professor Colum Kenny of the School of Communications, DCU, is a member of the BAI.