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Senior Lecturer, School of Film, Television and Media Studies
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Norwich Research Park
Norwich, Norfolk,NR4 7TJ
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Brett Mills, University of East Anglia
Wildlife documentaries infringe an animal's right to privacy, says Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia:
In a 2010 academic paperon nature documentaries, Brett Mills, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, argued that such films deny many wildlife species their right to privacy.
In a follow up commentary Mills published in The Guardian, he explained his intention was to raise an issue that nature photographers and filmmakers might not be taking into account: "Are there types of animal behavior, or places where such behavior takes place, where it might be right for humans to ponder whether or not it is appropriate to film them? he wrote. While acknowledging the value of nature photography and photographers' ethical considerations, Mills claimed this is a dilemma that is often ignored. For example, photographers and filmmakers routinely capture intimate situations such as mating or birthing that most humans would refuse to have filmed. We have no way of knowing whether animals agree to be filmed or photographed, he wrote. "But, significantly, when we don't [know] whether consent is forthcoming for humans, the likely ethical response is to decide that filming is inappropriate. So why should it be different when the subjects are not human? Mills doesn't offer a practical solution, but writes: "Perhaps thinking about how we treat animals in documentaries could help us think about our relationship to the whole world around us, which can surely be no bad thing.
Brett Mills, of the University of East Anglia, claims documentary producers are ignoring the fact that animals try to hide from humans, which implies they do not consent to being filmed."It might at first seem odd to claim that animals might have a right to privacy," Dr Mills wrote in the journal Continuum.
"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," he added.
In few places is this clearer than the mainstream reception of recent research by Dr Brett Mills, Senior Lecturer in Film, Television and Media Studies at the University of East Anglia.
Back in 2010, something of a media storm was inadvertently whipped up, in which the Guardian, Daily Mail and others reported that Mills had claimed nature documentaries constituted an infringement of animals' rights to privacy. Mills is quick to recognise that, up to a point, this is simply part of the process - different writers having different audiences and different roles to fulfill - and he distances himself from the idea that mainstream media should, as some academics seem to think, act as a mouthpiece for their research. "I don't understand the point in working and researching in a university if it's not connecting to the outside world in some way, but it's unbelievably pompous to think that the role of the media is simply to disseminate our knowledge," he laughs. "That's our role!" Still, it's a significant problem when such compelling and genuinely original research into humanity's representation of animals cannot currently reach a wider audience without being critically undermined in advance. Because the points that Mills is trying to make are much more nuanced than newspaper headlines are able to convey. The point then is that a particular framework of interpretation is imposed upon animal behaviour, one which has a very singular vision of what 'normal' human behaviour is or should be, and one that is actually justified, as Mills, writes, "via the very representation it defines". Likewise, Mills makes a particularly interesting point in Television wildlife documentaries and animals' right to privacy, an article published in Continuum in 2010. In it he observes how the BBC's approach to the idea of privacy differs according to whether the subject is human or non-human. Mills ascribes this in part to a class issue, but also to media techniques of representation - narrative arcs, voice-overs etc. So there is a logical link between his two fields of research, however unlikely it may seem at first. As he tells me, "The animal question is, for me, a debate about television representation - how you use the authority of science to think about culture." Currently, Mills is preparing a paper provisionally entitled Towards a theory of representation for animals in which he aims to explore how much of the theoretical frameworks set up by academics in the fields of gender studies and disability studies can be transferred across to animal studies. "Weirdly," he says, "science has colonised the discussions about animals. In a way, Mills is saying something not dissimilar, particularly when our conversation leads on to the understandable controversial subject of whether or not animals might have a sense of humour.