Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 13 May 2012
Exactly three months ago, on 13 February 2012, Robert Paul Lamb died at his London home. With his untimely exit, I lost a gifted mentor and the world, 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.
Robert’s outlook was rooted in journalism, where he started his career in the mid 1970s as a TV reporter with the BBC. He later straddled the worlds of media and development, but always remained a journalist at heart. He used simple words and well chosen moving images to show how we mismanage natural resources and energy.
Robert is probably best remembered as founder director of the UK-anchored 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 worldwide.
For two decades, Robert ensured that all TVE-made content was editorially independent – crucial for broadcaster acceptance and public credibility. Although often empathetic to good causes, these were not activist films or development 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 governments come together to find solutions.
TVE’s early years coincided with a global search for socially and environmentally sustainable development. 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, they changed forever how ‘environment’ was covered on TV.
Robert wasn’t into making wildlife or natural history films. 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!”
As Robert 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.”
Robert swam 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 said.
He accomplished this through a ‘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 his national counterpart. He was an unorthodox international consultant: open minded, analytical and well focused on getting the job done. I also found that he was completely jargon-free!
Since then, I worked with Robert in various countries, projects and TV productions. In 2002, we co-authored a global communication strategy for the Montreal Protocol to help phase out chemicals that harm the ozone layer. Along the way, I picked up many nuggets of wisdom.
An example: Always look for what’s New, Interesting and True (NIT Test). All our efforts ultimately hinged on how we connected with the TV viewer who held the all-powerful remote controller!
Another one: 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
Instead of lamenting the decline of blue-chip documentaries, Robert looked for ways to tell good visual stories on tighter budgets. As channels multiplied, audiences fragmented and production budgets shrank, he experimented with new formats and styles.
“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 ‘Earth Report’ TV series that he started in 1996 as a weekly exploration of the state of the planet. First broadcast on BBC World TV, 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 – none of who had any editorial control.
Robert insisted that every producer researched and cross-checked all facts and figures. Multiple interviews, meanwhile, helped balance out any single opinion from dominating.
Using evidence and analysis, Earth Reports held to account multinational corporations, single issue lobbyists, civil society groups and even some governments. It also championed those quietly and diligently searching for solutions to global environmental problems.
Robert didn’t peddle anti-corporate or anti-globalisation shrill common in some environmental films. As a journalist, he let all key players have their say. Timber tycoons and oil company executives were interviewed along with activists, scientists and community leaders.
This balancing act wasn’t always easy, especially in contentious debates like nuclear energy, biotechnology or bio-piracy — where even the scientific opinion is polarised. He didn’t necessarily take any sides, which sometimes irked all involved parties. But hey, this was journalism, not PR or spin!
Some 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 only 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. 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.