The Earth’s Reporter

He used simple words and well-chosen moving images to show us what is wrong with the way we manage our natural resources and energy, and how we can change

 
By Nalaka Gunawardene
Published: Sunday 28 June 2015

The EarthÔÇÖs Reporter

Robert Paul LambWhen Robert Paul Lamb died at his London home on 13 February 2012, the world lost a planetary-scale story teller. For over 30 years, he reported about the state of our planet using its most pervasive medium: broadcast television.

An accomplished science writer, TV journalist and documentary film-maker, Robert was just 59 when he succumbed to cancer. At the time, he headed his own documentary production company—One Planet Pictures.

Robert’s outlook was rooted in journalism, where he started his career in the mid-1970s as a TV reporter with BBC. He later straddled the worlds of media and development, with stints as features editor of Earthscan publishing in London and as communications chief of IUCN in Gland, Switzerland.

But he always remained a journalist, using simple words and well-chosen moving images to show us what is wrong with the way we manage our natural resources and energy, and how we can change.

Robert is probably best remembered as founder director of the UK-anchored media charity, Television Trust for the Environment (TVE). It was set up in 1984 to tap the mass outreach of TV and video to raise environmental awareness around the world.

For nearly two decades, Robert ensured that all TVE content was editorially independent, which was crucial for broadcaster acceptance and public credibility. Although often empathetic to various good causes, these were not activist films or development agency propaganda.

Robert commissioned, produced or co-produced hundreds of documentaries on a broad range of issues and topics. Some were straightforward ones that connected the dots for intelligent viewers. Others investigated complex—and often contentious—causes and effects of environmental degradation or social exclusion.

Having worked and travelled widely for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), he had a firm grasp of scientific, economic and political realities that shaped international development. He also appreciated the glacial pace of progress when bickering governments come together.

TVE’s early years coincided with a global search for economic development that was both socially and environmentally sustainable. Those heady days saw the UN-appointed Brundtland Commission releasing its landmark report, Our Common Future (1987), paving the way for Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Robert and his team followed the intellectual debates and tracked progress of the growing number of inter-governmental treaties on specific environmental issues, such as conserving biodiversity, climate change, ozone depletion and hazardous waste.

In doing so, this small band of individuals changed forever how environment was covered on television.

Robert was not into making wildlife or natural history films. Perhaps the best summing up of his line of work was given by Mahatma Gandhi, who, when asked for his views on Indian wildlife decades ago, replied: "Wildlife is decreasing in the jungles–but it is increasing in the towns."

In the spectrum of factual TV programme production, Robert Lamb occupied a niche best described as scientifically-based environmental films: those that explore the ecological footprint of modern humans on Nature and ecosystems.

As he recalled years later, “In the mid-1980s barely anyone had heard about the ozone layer or global warming. Natural history programming brought the wonders of plant and animal diversity into our living rooms but glossed over the complex causes of extinction.” 

Going upstream

Robert knew he was swimming against not one but several currents. “Television does not cope well with explaining the grey areas. Or rather it could—but the received wisdom is that it makes the viewer reach for the remote channel changer. Television prefers the black and white; the good guys versus the bad,” he once said.

He accomplished what he did through what I call the triple-S formula—mixing the right proportions of good 'Science' and engaging 'Stories', told in 'Simple' (but not simplistic) language. He demystified jargon-ridden science and procedure-laden intergovernmental negotiations without losing their complexity or nuances.

I first worked with Robert in 1994 when he was invited by Sri Lanka’s Forest Department to formulate an environment education project; I was engaged as his national counterpart. He was an unorthodox international consultant: open minded, analytical and fully focused on getting the job done. Delightfully, he was also completely jargon-free.

Since then, I worked with Robert in various countries, projects and situations, including co-authoring a 2002 global communication strategy for phasing out industrial chemicals that damage the ozone layer. In the process, I picked up so many nuggets of practical and pragmatic wisdom.

For example, he used to say: Always look for what’s New, True and Interesting (the NTI Test). All our efforts ultimately hinged on how we connected with the viewer who held that all-powerful remote controller.

Robert’s overarching advice: never underestimate your audience’s intelligence—or overestimate its interest. “If we don’t engage our audiences within the first 60 to 90 seconds, they are gone. Hook them—but make it worth their while to stay on.”

Riding each wave

Robert was adroit in both substance and style. Instead of lamenting the decline of blue-chip documentaries, he looked for new ways of telling good visual stories on increasingly tighter budgets. As channels multiplied, audiences fragmented and production budgets shrank, Robert experimented with new formats, styles and engagement methods.

“It is no good wringing your hands or talking of the duty of the media. You have to catch the next wave,” he often said.

A good example was the Earth Report TV series that he started in 1996 as a weekly exploration of the state of the planet looking at both environmental problems and solutions. First broadcast on the global satellite channel, BBC World, it was then offered free to dozens of other TV stations worldwide.

Under his editorial supervision, over 350 Earth Reports were made by many independent producers over the years. Robert raised money for these from aid agencies and philanthropic foundations, without allowing them any editorial control.

Robert also insisted that every producer researched and cross-checked all facts and figures. Multiple interviews, meanwhile, helped balance out any single opinion from dominating.

Earth Reports held to account some governments, multinational corporations, single issue lobbyists and even civil society groups. It also championed those quietly and diligently searching for solutions.

Robert wasn’t into peddling anti-corporate or anti-globalisation shrill common in environmental films. He allowed all key players to have their say. So, for example, timber tycoons and oil company executives were interviewed along with activists, scientists and community leaders.

Similarly, he chose not to get enamoured by the tree-hugging and Gaia-worshipping of the greens, instead staying closer to mainstream science and rigour of journalistic analysis.

Balancing act

This balancing act wasn’t always easy, especially in contentious debates—like nuclear energy, biotechnology or bio-piracy—where even the scientific opinion is often polarised. In such debates, Robert walked the tightrope between green alarmism and anti-green denialism, while asking tough questions from everyone. He didn’t necessarily take any sides which sometimes left all involved parties unhappy. But this was journalism, not public relations.

As Sergio Jellinek, ex-CNN journalist now with the World Bank, says of his late friend: “Robert excelled at explaining sustainability in simple, non-elite terms that were always close to the people—an achievement that can be rightfully described as the 'Robert Lamb Brand'.”

Rajendra Shende, until recently director of UNEP’s Ozone Action programme, worked closely with Robert in telling the unfolding stories of the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. For Robert, he says, producing a documentary was just like making feature film.

“There was always gripping plot in each of his productions, a complicated environmental science explained in a simple, straight but stunning manner. And like films from Hollywood or Bollywood, the titles of his films were equally inviting.”

Many who worked with Robert found him impatient. Yes, he was a man in a hurry—perhaps because he realised how alarming the current trends were, giving us tight windows to turn things around.

Robert also walked his talk, practising what he advocated in his films. He lived modestly, used public transport and cycled avidly in and around London. If he breathed heavily in the edit room, he trod softly on the Earth.

As we hurtle into uncertain futures on our warming planet, we will miss Robert Lamb, the Earth’s Reporter.

Lankan science writer Nalaka Gunawardene worked closely with Robert Lamb as TVE’s Asia Pacific Regional Representative (1996-2004). Later they collaborated as board members of TVE Asia Pacific. Nalaka blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com
 

 

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