Documentary films violate animals’ right to privacy

April 30th, 2010 - 5:56 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, April 30 (ANI): Wildlife documentary filmmakers may be denying animals their right to privacy, claims a new research.

Dr Brett Mills from the University of East Anglia in his study ‘Television wildlife documentaries and animals’ right to privacy’ analyses the ‘making of’ documentaries that accompanied the BBC wildlife series Nature’s Great Events (2009).

Mills, a senior lecturer in the School of Film and Television Studies, said: “The aim of the research is to encourage debate, especially within the contemporary environmental context where it is now commonplace for us to question the impact of human movement and behaviour around the globe.

“In addition, though, perhaps there is an argument for some species, in some circumstances, not to be filmed. At the moment it seems that such arguments are never put forward.”

He added: “This is an important debate for two reasons. Firstly, wildlife documentaries are usually seen as important pieces of public service broadcasting, and it’s therefore worth us thinking about the ethical contexts within which such productions exist.

“Secondly, such documentaries are the key way in which many people ‘encounter’ a range of species from all over the globe, and so they therefore contribute to how we think about other species and human/animal interactions. By exploring what wildlife documentaries do, and how they do it, I hope to contribute to environmental debates at a time when the global effects of human behaviour are rightly under scrutiny.”

He claims the use of sophisticated aerial technology to film animals, for example, is justified because it does not disturb them, yet the question of whether it is appropriate to film animals in this way is not raised.

Mills added: “It might at first seem odd to claim that animals might have a right to privacy. Privacy, as it is commonly understood, is a culturally human concept. The key idea is to think about animals in terms of the public/private distinction. We can never really know if animals are giving consent, but they often do engage in forms of behaviour which suggest they’d rather not encounter humans, and we might want to think about equating this with a desire for privacy.

“When confronted with such ’secretive’ behaviour the response of the wildlife documentary is to read it as a challenge to be overcome with the technologies of television. The question constantly posed by wildlife documentaries is how animals should be filmed: they never ask whether animals should be filmed at all.

“Human notions of privacy which rest on ideas of location or activity are ignored in terms of animals. It doesn’t matter what an animal does, or where it does it, it will be deemed fair game for the documentary.”

Distinctions between the public and private are enshrined within broadcasting regulations, with privacy placed within ethical categories of human rights. Central to broadcasters’ relationship with its public is that in order to be filmed, the public must first offer their consent. If they don’t, broadcasters must not infringe privacy unless there is a pressing justification to do so.

Mills concluded: “While never made explicit, such regulations assume that such ethics are applicable to humans only. The ethical standards applying to wildlife programmes are predominately predicated on ensuring that ‘audiences should never be deceived or misled by what they see or hear’, that is the ‘contract with the viewer’ is prioritised over the rights of the animals. In doing so, an assumption is made here about the differences between humans and animals, which have been at the heart of debates over animal rights and the ethical treatment of animals for millennia.

“The environmental and educational aspects of wildlife documentaries are assumed to trump ethical concerns about animals’ privacy. It is an impressive piece of ethical manipulation, whereby privacy, so enshrined within the concepts of rights for humans, becomes merely a ‘realm’ which documentary makers can enter, justifying their actions as ones for the benefit of the very species whose rights are being moralised away.”

The study has been published in the current issue of Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies. (ANI)

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