Placement Spotlight: DM Productions/BBC Panorama

Note: the views expressed are entirely those of the author and do not represent the views of DM Productions or the BBC.

Max Weber once wrote that ‘the journalist belongs to a sort of pariah caste, which is always estimated by “society” in terms of its ethically lowest representative.’ This observation remains especially true today, with public trust in journalism at an all-time low. Yet Weber continued that ‘a really good journalistic accomplishment requires at least as much “genius” as any scholarly accomplishment.’ For my OOC-DTP placement, I was privileged to spend three months observing accomplished journalism at close hand, working as a researcher for a BBC Panorama documentary, “Big Brands’ Green Claims Uncovered,” made by DM Productions, a multi-award-winning production company focused on key social issues. A highly enriching experience, it also underlined the critical role of investigative journalism in cultivating a functioning public sphere, lending nuance to our prevailing cynicism.


The film investigated something called the Voluntary Carbon Market, a commercial marketplace for “carbon credits.” In theory, these offset emissions by implementing beneficial environmental projects. As the climate crisis has surged into one of our era’s top issues, companies and organisations are now expected to develop strategies for attaining “Net Zero” emissions. In this context, offsetting has flourished over the last decade, with private developers raising funds for a range of project types, the most popular of which is something called “avoided deforestation,” in which developers transform at-risk areas into protected areas. This has allowed many corporations to claim carbon neutral status, with British Airways advertising its domestic flights in this way, for example, as we explored in the film. 


Until very recently, offsetting was hailed as a huge growth area, with then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak declaring his intent to make ‘the UK and the City of London the leader of the global voluntary carbon markets’ in 2021. And the offset ideal thus aligns with a kind of free-market environmentalism, in which dynamic market forces are seen as capable of internalising climate externalities through voluntary arrangements.


By contrast, critics argue that offsets are a powerful vehicle for corporate “greenwashing,” essentially allowing business-as-usual to continue. As a legally unregulated global market, “junk” carbon credits are seen as a major problem. Yet even the highly respected developers favoured by reputation-conscious global corporations are subject to a torrent of academic criticism, with a number of landmark studies finding their environmental credentials to be highly exaggerated. Meanwhile, NGOs have also raised serious human rights concerns.
The film’s goal was to assess such claims, producing the first major broadcast investigation into the offsetting business. From Kenya to Cambodia, it takes the viewer inside the global carbon market, reporting on alleged human rights abuses in projects run by two highly rated developers, Wildlife Works and Wildlife Alliance, including sexual coercion and forced evictions. 
We also interviewed a range of academics, NGOs, and campaigners, including Oxford’s Kaya Axelsson. One of the main lessons the experience taught me was thus how important public-facing academic research is to shaping policy debates. And while accompanying the team for interviews in Oxford and London did not take me far from home, assisting with shoots in Amsterdam and Berlin was a definite highlight, providing insight into the fast-paced world of documentary filmmaking, which requires not only technical and creative skill, but also forensic research, intellect, and vision. This intensity reaches a peak in the gruelling labour of the final edit – from which DM Productions kindly spared me. The reward lies not only in seeing one’s work brought to life on screen, but also in the awareness that public-service journalism still wields major impact. 


Academic research, especially for the doctorate, requires deep immersion in a highly specialist field that can sometimes feel divorced from the real world. My everyday work as the film’s researcher was certainly more varied than my thesis project on Silicon Valley, moving from analysing news media to scientific journal articles (which I approached with minor panic), and from NGO reports to identifying potential interviewees.


Even so, it was also an important reminder that even the most specialised doctoral project cultivates adaptable critical ability. It is easy to forget, I think, that reading, thinking, and writing day in, day out renders us curious beings with keen eyes for both broader narrative and pedantic details. Though more creative than the strictures of academic history writing, the challenge of documentaries fundamentally lies in combining clear assessments of fact with the force of human stories and experience. In this sense, working on a film was totally different; and yet, oddly the same.