Obsessive: Fascination with the weather leaving Britain ‘high and dry’

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#UKStorm2013 is the hashtag being used by thousands, including Downing Street, to archive the plight of Britain. Our fascination with the weather. It has been dubbed the “worst storm for years” yet in reality it feels very much like the biannual occurrence of high winds and heavy rain. British media aims to reach to so many and so you could be forgiven for thinking nothing else has happened over the past 24 hours. Some websites have even produced maps so that viewers can “track the storm”. Worse than all, it isn’t just the ‘storm’ that will bring down Britain. Any peak of any weather type seems to grind Britain and her economy to an unflattering halt.

As some commentators observed, the motion of cancelling rail services before the storm had even arrived, had similarities to caving in before the worst arrived; others suggested it wasn’t typical of the British to simply give in, in the face of ‘adverse’ weather conditions. But that is what happened. By 5pm Sunday evening, the majority of train services in the South (before 9am) had already been cancelled, leaving rush hour commuters in chaos and stranded at home. Fallen trees, flooded lines and dangerously high winds had been predicted and predicted correct they were. An empty passenger train was hit by a falling tree, whilst power cables on lines in and out London’s busiest stations have been brought down, leaving many commuters, those as far as the North West and beyond receiving the effects of the weather that the South had suffered with overnight. It is a similar story when every type of poor weather conditions hit Britain. The rail network instantly crumbles, costing the industry millions of pounds worth of delays and cancellations, thousands of pounds worth of customer refunds and exchanges, and unimaginable amounts to Britain’s economy.

As is with the anticipation and subsequent arrival of any weather news, journalists and reporters are sent out into the depths of Britain to gain a true understanding as to how people are coping in the face of abject misery. Although many are suffering, with thousands of homes without power and schools closed, what humour can be gained is served from digital news channels. There is something eerily strange about an empty Victoria Station at the height of the Monday rush hour; for those who arrived only to find their trains cancelled, comments such as “I’m considering getting a taxi” may beg the question as to whether it is actually news. A cameraman being blown over on a beach by the force of the winds is more you’ve been framed than Sky News, whilst the drenched appearance of a journalist amongst the weather questions the safety of BBC reporters.

Some of the topics discussed during the out of ordinary weather conditions seem to be rather nonsensical. BBC Local Radio have been requesting people to email, tweet them or phone them if they have lost power in their home. Some reporters have turned consumer advisor, telling people how to cope in the weather ahead of the apparent end of the world. Coastguards have warned of the dangers of being near the coasts and so nearly every journalist covering the natural event has headed to the coast. Every breath taken by somebody covering the story seems to be point blank obvious to the extent where it becomes funny.

For hour upon hour, TV news channels tell the same story. Amongst the warnings issued, even with Downing Street advice, include not to travel. It is always a bizarre statement. How are we not to travel? In the face of such acts from above, Britain cannot just grind to a halt and wait for the rain to pass by. It is completely and utterly unviable. Over one hundred flights cancelled at Heathrow is perhaps understandable, as is the cancellation of cross-channel ferry is such rough conditions. How can motorists travelling the United Kingdom simply give in? If everybody did take advice on driving slower and taking more time for journeys then we would be in a pleasant environment. Arrogant drivers who appear in a completely different environment to everybody else are those who cause danger and death. There are still ways of keeping Britain going in the face of wind and rain.

It isn’t just the #UKStorm2013 that has got TV news gripped. The snow troubles advise thousands to simply sit tight and wait. The same footage of sliding cars, closed schools, snowy fields and disrupted airports are unimaginatively churned out every time. At the other end of the calendar lies unexpected warm weather which causes disruption, oddly. Buckled railway lines, melting roads and warnings of stay indoors and drink lots of water feels very much like a political nanny state recycled again through news bulletins. Whatever the weather, 24 hour news channels will cover events. It isn’t news, we all know. Yet there is some kind of trepidation and enigma of seeing somewhere feeling the force of the weather compared to your own comforts which are unaffected.

The fascination with our weather is unexplainable. 24 hour news feeds our habit and keeps us at home away from working and doing what we must do. Double page spreads of huge waves ‘battering’ the coast will surface in tomorrows newspapers, to further serialize the drama. The ‘storm’ may be in its full power, but Britain remains on this side of the Atlantic, so it’s not the worst…yet.

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‘Breaking News’ – The snow is back.

ITV News presenters Mary Nightingale and Alastair Stewart bring us the latest on the snow.

ITV News presenters Mary Nightingale and Alastair Stewart bring us the latest on the snow.

British news has once again been dominated by the old trouble maker herself, the weather. Again. But is it really necessary for this same old story about travel disruption, power cuts and how we are coping in the “freezing conditions” to have the worthy of nearly half the air time of an evening news bulletin? I think not.

There is a clear argument for the reports on the weather, keeping viewers informed with any disruption to their travels and whether or not their kid’s school is closed. But surely this kind of news can be kept for a short update within a local news bulletin. News of how many schools have been closed in Wales and Northern Ireland is most irrelevant to a viewer in Newcastle. There is an art of recycling when it comes to weather news reports. The standard procedure applies as follows: Top headline about snow; travel disruption because of the snow; how people have been “battling the elements”; a warning from police not to travel; and of course, the question everyone wants to know – is more on the way? I guarantee if you watch a news bulletin on a ‘snow day’ this procedure or near abouts will be the one that dominates.

When it comes to reporting on the snowy conditions and “treacherous driving conditions”, there is an element of shock. That shock, however, is that the expense of other motorists. For instance, a common report on the travel disruption begins with scenes of motorways around the country which appear dangerous and un-driveable. But then follows the repeated phrase, “a number of accidents…” which then leads into footage of cars off the road, often in ditches, recognising how very dangerous the roads are. Sometimes there will be dramatic footage from a camera phone showing a car, sometimes a bus, sliding in icy surfaces. Very shocking. But then again, why would any driver be so careless to pass through icy conditions and put their own lives at risk? The ordinary viewer, who hasn’t ventured out because of the cold, voices their opinions within the family – “stupid”, “idiot”, “why didn’t they stay at home” – So whilst the reports do highlight the somewhat incompetence of drivers who ignore previous warnings, they highlight the danger on the roads, underlying the message of the danger in the snow and NOT TO TRAVEL..(unless absolutely 100% vital, of course).

Another regular feature which appears on ‘snow day’ news programmes is the art of crossing from the cosy and warm newsroom to the arctic like conditions of the Lake District, Glasgow, Belfast, Buxton, Cornwall and Cardiff (not always used), in the traditional ‘sweep’ around the country to get the wider picture. Mainly so a viewer in the south can comment on how much snow they have had compared to the North. Then follows the ‘Live OB’ – the Outside Broadcast. “Lets cross to Cumbria and get the latest from there…” proclaims the newsreader and then follows one of the single most depressing shots for anyone who wants to be a part of news – one of the country’s brilliant TV journalists, used to battling court room dramas and breaking news, stands freezing, covered in snow and red-faced, in a farmer’s field. There has to be some admiration for these reporters who brave the conditions to bring us the details of what is happening. Although, quite a lot of the time, the closures, conditions and power cuts that are being experienced in Scotland are quite the same to those in Cardiff. It is an endless ‘arctic circle’.

At one time, it used to be a novelty to have a news bulletin dedicated to the ‘chaos’ that the snow has brought. Nowadays, with climate change and differences to our weather patterns, snow is bedding down more regular. Where I live, between Liverpool and Manchester, there have been around four different snowfalls in the past six months! Despite that the same reports and information surface – Don’t travel unless necessary; check with your tour operator; stay indoors; check on your neighbours. Compare that to the United States where snow drifts are vast and we look like a country that can’t cope with the white stuff. The news is supposed to be an operation that provides the latest new news. Although each snowfall is new the news that surrounds it is far from that.

So don’t forget to take care in the snow and of course, in the words of great journalists and presenters, “don’t travel if it’s not essential.”