For the past week or so here in Blighty, the weather forecasters have been building us up for a major bout of bad weather. They’ve been going on at length, for a week or more now, about a warm front in the west meeting a cold front in the east (the same cold weather that has caused the deaths of over 100 people in eastern Europe and caused Venetian canals to freeze over), with dire warnings about massive snowfall on the eastern side of the UK. Threats of two to six centimetres—gulp! (did that sound sarcastic enough?—and ensuing travel chaos.
The snow finally hit, more or less as predicted, on Saturday night. We got a healthy dump of it here in Kent, but nothing to get too bothered about. I happily ignored it. I know the local authorities had been out gritting the local bus routes. We woke to probably 10cm of snow in places. That’s a scary four inches; barely enough to get your boots damp.
Best Beloved and some friends had planned a trip to an amateur radio rally on Canvey Island. We checked the motorway cameras on the internet, and all seemed clear and running well. The only doubt was whether the roads around the rally venue were clear, but reports began to come in that all was well, the rally was going ahead, and people were clearing the car park. No problems. Just be careful out there. They all went, and came home, safely.
Meanwhile, the news media was full of snowmageddon. Now the snow had hit London, it was big news. Never mind folk in the north-west and parts of Scotland have had snow like this for some time already. It’s not really news until the Tube is affected, or people had to clear a sprinkling of snow from their Chelsea Tractors.
We were told in breathless terms, accompanied by shaky cameraphone video, that some people had been stuck on the M40 for a while. A train or two got stuck somewhere. Flights from the London airports had been cancelled. It was the usual story of idiot drivers or unfortunate icing in strategically important places.
Nothing to get excited about, frankly, but having built us up for it the news channels had to make it into the end of the world as we knew it.
They had, after all, been priming us for days that it was going to be 1947/1963/2010 all over again. Endless rolling video of snowploughs, cars with wheels spinning, people digging out snow drifts—all from the archives, of course—were aired as the teleprompter jockeys intoned the bad news coming. The BBC News channel had a poor bloke in front of Heathrow, bemoaning the cancelled flights and troubles with the roads, while traffic flowed freely about him. He had his script, and he had to fit the agenda. The reality behind him just made it more and more surreal, frankly. I spotted one shot of a van stuck in the snow. The camera zoomed frantically in to catch the desperate attempts to move in the snow and ice… Wait, oh, it’s at a traffic light. Nothing to see here. Move along.
Now, as the thaw sets in, we’re warned of sub-zero temperatures leading to ice on the roads, freezing fog, and so on, ad infinitum. This morning, as I sit at my desk and type this, a weak sun is warming the snow so it begins to thaw. Most of it will be gone by tomorrow. I realise now why the media goes through this every time.
First, they have to justify their existence, so they manufacture news to fit their agenda. That’s a given, as far as any sceptic is concerned.
Second, having cried wolf for a week or more, having been proved right (if only for a few hours), they continue to big up the badness to make us all really scared.
Third, once we’re all really scared, stripped the supermarkets of supplies, battened down the hatches and prepared for the end of the civilised world, we wake the morning after and discover it’s not so bad after all. We all feel better about things. “Well, that wasn’t so bad,” we say to ourselves. “Seen a lot worse than that,” we tell our friends. “Have you seen this fabulous snowman the kids have made in the street?” we inform Facebook.
The media plays pyschological games with us. They tell us how bad it’s going to be, ramping up the fear and paranoia, and when it turns out not to be so bad after all we all feel better about life.
The problem is, the news media does this with all the news. That’s a scary thought.