MARK Thompson, the BBC director-general, has suggested criticism of its faked wildlife programme scenes had been fuelled by newspapers’ bitterness over the corporation’s coverage of the phone hacking inquiry.
Mr Thompson questioned whether condemnation of misleading footage of polar bears in its Frozen Planet show had been influenced by the BBC’s comprehensive reporting of the Leveson inquiry into press standards.
“I do rather wonder whether this is really about polar bears or about Lord Leveson and other matters,” he told MPs.
He also suggested that people do not want to be told when wildlife programmes are faked, following the disclosure that other parts of the acclaimed series were filmed in zoos.
His comments come following outrage this week after it emerged the footage of a polar bear giving birth to cubs was shot in a zoo on mainland Europe. The BBC omitted to say this in the broadcast, but made it clear to people who visited its website.
Millions thought the scene had been captured by BBC cameramen inside an underground cave in the sub-zero temperatures of the Arctic wilderness.
But the footage, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, was really filmed in a den made of plaster and wood in a wildlife enclosure at a Dutch zoo.
Appearing before the Culture, Media and Sport committee, Tory MP Therese Coffey told Mr Thompson that she had believed “the footage was genuine”.
She said the series would not have “any less fantastic” if the short sequence had not been included. She added: “For me I will probably never look at a BBC nature programme in the same way to see if was it trick cameras.”
Ms Coffey asked if Sir David Attenborough, who narrated the series, would re-record the commentary “to make clear that it was not being filmed in the frozen planet but in a German zoo?”
Mr Thompson replied “no”, and said that people actually preferred not to be told when footage was artificially created, rather than filmed in the wild.
Mr Thompson said: “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.”
Lord Patten, the BBC Trust’s chairman who was also giving evidence, said that the shots of the polar bears could not have been obtained in the wild, because the mother polar bear would have killed her cubs or the cameramen.
He said: "The alternative was either dead bears or dead people." He added that “out of almost eight million who watched the programme, 32 had raised an objection”.
John Whittingdale, the committee’s chairman, said this could be because only a few people had looked at the website.
Critics said the BBC had not been open with viewers, but earlier this week Sir David defended the programme, which was broadcast on Nov 23 to acclaim.
He said: “During the middle of this scene, when you're trying to paint what it's like in the middle of winter in the Pole, do you say, ‘Oh, by the way, this is filmed in a zoo?’
“It would completely ruin the atmosphere and destroy the pleasure of the viewers. It’s not a falsehood. How far do you take this?’
“This is a penguin but actually it’s a different penguin colony than we did for that one' – come on. We're making movies.”