It will surprise few people to learn that Chris Packham was a fairly obstinate, single-minded child.
He was also bright and passionate, fascinated with the natural world and omnivorous when it came to collecting information. Growing up in Southampton, he would commit to projects and complete them – whatever the cost. If his mother called him for dinner, he’d simply refuse to eat until he’d finished.
“I think it was the simple beauty of it and I loved the idea that individual organisms were so perfect,” he’s said of his love of the planet. Humans, though, are far from perfect.
“As I have grown older I have found an enormous weight of guilt on my shoulders because I am part of a generation that has failed to act on protecting nature and now we’re struggling.”
Packham is now 62 years old, but the Springwatch presenter, naturalist and documentary-maker is, if anything, even more committed to his projects. And feeling that guilt more than ever.
As projects go, that of protecting the planet is a mammoth one. Putting off dinner won’t be enough; he’s now prepared to do anything. First, he has to decide how far “anything” goes.
As a programme title, Chris Packham: Is It Time To Break The Law?, which aired on Channel 4 on Wednesday, was deliberately provocative.
It saw Packham, a committed environmental activist who spoke at an Extinction Rebellion (XR) demonstration in April, calling for “every last person who care to get involved because caring is not enough”, consider whether it is now ethically acceptable to break the law in protesting government climate policies – or the lack thereof.
Helpfully, Rishi Sunak’s Net Zero announcements earlier in the day gave the film supplementary relevance, as many environmentally-minded people may have seen headlines about the prime minister’s reversal on key climate pledges and found themselves asking a similar question to the film’s title.
That or, at least, “When is the next general election?” But Packham believes we are past the point of simply needing a government change.
“I’ve reached a fork in the road. For years I’ve been marching, I’ve been writing banners, I’ve been posting posters, I’ve been a peaceful democratic activist, but none of it has worked,” he said in the documentary.
“Well perhaps I have to take another route. Does that other route mean that this is the time for me to break the law?”
What followed was not an hour of Packham rampantly off on a criminal spree – which is a shame, if only from an entertainment perspective – but a thoughtful investigation of the developing tactics of XR and, principally, Just Stop Oil.
Packham, who is a curious and sympathetic listener (possibly too sympathetic – the topic may have benefited from a more objective treatment), chatted to Just Stop Oil marchers as they held up the Old Kent Road, observed another pair of activists as they lobbed five litres of orange paint over the headquarters of conservative think-tank Policy Exchange, and met the author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire.
His conclusion? Fire away, folks. “If you’ve already made the decision that, yes, I’m going to break the law – and no one will get hurt and no environmental damage will be done – then you’ll have my support. Personally I think I’ve reached a point where I consider it the ethically responsible thing to do.”
Home Secretary Suella Braverman would be be the first to disagree: “I totally refute what Chris Packham and organisations like Just Stop Oil stand for,” she told Good Morning Britain this week. “They take a militant, aggressive approach to prosecuting their cause. Totally unacceptable.” (Packham, who also appeared on the show, remained defiant. “You can’t even stand on the street with a T-shirt on without being dragged away,” he said. “Is that the country that you want to live in?”)
To anybody familiar with Packham only thanks to his gentle role introducing live footage of Britain’s natural wonders on Springwatch and its seasonal spin-offs, or perhaps knew him best for his nine years as a presenter on the long-running CBBC wildlife programme The Really Wild Show, the sight of him appearing with what is supposed to be crude oil pouring down his face, as he does in the Channel 4 documentary, then flirting with incitement, is possibly a little jarring.
Yet while Packham has many of the hallmarks of an establishment figure – a CBE; a sister, Jenny, who frequently dresses the Princess of Wales; a reputation as a potential heir to Sir David Attenborough – in reality he has always embraced his rebellious side.
He often felt isolated and introverted as a teenager, an experience later explained in part by his diagnosis, in his 40s, with Asperger’s syndrome.
The first empowering thing he did, he once recalled, was dying his hair peroxide blonde and embracing punk music. He went on to play guitar in a band called Titanic Survivors (Quite a good name, admittedly) and remains an independent, natty dresser into his 60s. His favourite song is Penetration’s’ “Shout Above the Noise.”
Few could argue with his talents as a naturalist and wildlife presenter. Unassuming but forthright, knowledgeable and heartfelt, he has the qualities of all the best teachers. “If you think Chris Packham is just another TV presenter, think again. He’s an educator and if you take time to listen to him, he’ll attempt to show and tell how he sees the world,” his director, Simon King, has said. “Life is better for having someone like Chris Packham around to educate about the natural world and mental health.”
Packham does indeed show and tell how he sees the world, making not only his nature television so watchable, but also his superb recent documentaries on autism. In much of his work, the subject is tackled in relation to his own experience.
This results in courageous and compelling television, but foregrounding his own views invariably gets him into trouble, too. Especially as an employee of the BBC.
He is a man who doesn’t so much court controversy as cohabit with it. As his career developed, naturally he has been interviewed more often, and these tend to bring about the kind of quotes that make newspaper editors squeal with delight, but his bosses groan with despair. Giant pandas, he said almost 15 years ago, should be allowed to become extinct. “I reckon we should pull the plug. Let them go with a degree of dignity.”
As an alternative plan, the vegetarian (now vegan) Packham would “eat the last panda if I could have the money we’ve spent on panda conservation to [spend on] more sensible things.” A year later, he was advocating population controls. “The excessive demands of the growing population is having a disastrous effect on biodiversity. There are too many of us taking too much too quickly,” he said. “We need to do something about it.”
Arrested in 2014 and charged with assault while filming the mass killing of birds in Malta; a high-profile resignation as president of the Hawk and Owl Trust in 2015 over “personal differences over ideas of policy”; a vehement anti-hunting activist… He hates all sport, in fact: “If I had a magic wand and could change one thing, I would have sport removed from BBC News. It’s not news, and a disproportionate amount of time is given to the trivia of sport.”
In 2015, after he had used his column in BBC Wildlife magazine to argue conservation groups were “hamstrung by outdated liaisons with the ‘nasty brigade’ and can’t risk upsetting old friends” in acting over fox hunting, badger culling and hen harrier persecution, the Countryside Alliance called for the BBC to sack him.
“There is no issue with people voicing such opinions, but using the position granted by a public service broadcaster to promote an extreme agenda is a different thing entirely,” Tim Bonner, chief executive at Countryside Alliance, wrote on the alliance’s website.
Two years earlier, the BBC had reprimanded him for breaching guidelines by tweeting that those carrying out the badger cull were “brutalist, thugs, liars and frauds”. That language was, Lord Hall, the then director-general, said, “intemperate and we have spoken to Chris about these issues.”
Packham has principles, and he is not afraid of voicing them, even if it sees him persistently harassed – including masked men blowing up a Land Rover outside his New Forest home in 2021, destroying the gates to his property. That he is so outspoken is an admirable quality; that he is so outspoken while employed by the BBC is a more complicated matter.
The organisation’s impartiality guidelines are under greater scrutiny than ever, especially since Gary Lineker was temporarily forced to step back from presenting Match of the Day after using Twitter (now X) to compare the rhetoric of Home Secretary Suella Braverman on migrants to that of Nazi Germany.
The current director-general, Tim Davie, later admitted that existing social media guidelines contained “grey areas”. Those areas appear gargantuan, yet presenters – who are simultaneously urged to show more personality – are forever straying out of them. Last year, for instance, Jeremy Vine was found to have breached impartiality rules in his support for low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs).
Packham’s Is It Time To Break The Law? documentary could clearly not have been made for the BBC, but he remains a fixture across the organisation, including presenting the recent, lauded Earth series.
Sir David Attenborough also trekked over to different channels – notably Apple TV+ – to make stronger arguments on climate change than he would have been permitted on the BBC, but Packham is clearly facing a dilemma over his future.
He received his first pair of binoculars in 1970, aged nine, and since then, he said in the documentary, we’ve lost 69 per cent of the world’s wildlife. “Life has vanished since I’ve loved it… and of course it’s my fault. I’ve been part of a generation of conservationists who’s completely failed to protect the thing they’re meant to love more than anything else.” That sense of shame now consumes him.
Now, he has spent an hour pondering whether he is prepared to do something illegal in order to up his contribution to the fight for climate justice. His resultant stance is nuanced – “I’m not endorsing it, nor will I support it if and when it happens, but I will understand it, because the government is not listening to people blocking the streets or throwing orange powder over snooker tables” – but it is also evolving.
“If I stay out of prison, I can be carping on all the time, like I do,” he pointed out recently, meaning the platform he holds is more valuable than criminal damage. In a separate interview, he was more tempted by the idea. “I’m not saying it might not happen at some point,” he said.
“I need to be more active. I’m 62 years old, I’m running out of time, I’ve got to try to alleviate some of the grotesque guilt I carry for our generation not having done the work early enough. I can’t help but feel a degree of personal responsibility.”
That action may come at a personal cost at some point. And you suspect that Packham, who always completes a project, won’t mind if it does. He has always been his harshest judge.
“I’m very self-critical, and I think that’s a healthy thing, because I want to continually improve what I try to do,” he said on Desert Island Discs. “So I want to take better photographs, I want to learn how to communicate better with my audience on television, I want to be able to write better… So it’s difficult for me to perceive any success in the things I do.”
To the list, he can now add “being a better eco warrior.” His first track on Desert Island Discs? Rebel Rebel, of course.