It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that there has been a bit of stuff going on in the world that could be justifiably classified as newsworthy; if you aren’t interested in peaceful social upheaval in northern Africa then we’ve got violent social upheaval in northern Africa for you and if that doesn’t float your boat then we’ve got the possibility of regime changes in the Middle East too or, of course, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, and problems with nuclear reactors all at the same time in Japan. A real treat for the news connoisseur!
So, last Saturday morning I sat down with a mug of tea and some freshly-sliced bread, toasted and all ready to have its upwards-facing side slathered with paté, and I switched on BBC News 24 to catch up with the latest news out of Japan. The tsunami had hit the day before yet was still fresh enough to be shown every couple of minutes, but the new and exciting development was an explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. They showed the footage and I ate some toast.
Impressive, I thought, and turned to my wife. I remarked that it looked like a build-up of gas had probably blown away the roof of one of the buildings, probably the result of trying to release the pressure in an already-damaged location. “No flames, no mushroom cloud, no real danger,” I added, trying to sound knowledgeable. My wife agreed in silence as she was eating toast too and had decided not to speak with her mouth full after watching a third of my breakfast intake splatter around the room while I demonstrated my scientific insight.
BBC News 24 cut back to the studio. The presenter introduced a scientific expert on nuclear reactors and plants and asked him about the footage they and we had just witnessed. Venting, he said, had probably caused a build up of hydrogen gas in the roof of the surrounding structure and, with all the damage from the quake and tsunami it had finally cracked and exploded. He stressed that it probably had had no impact on the nuclear fuel location itself and wasn’t a nuclear explosion, merely an explosion that happened to be in a nuclear facility. A bit like how I’m a man in France when I go to France but I’m not actually a French man, I thought, though refrained from expressing.
The presenter looked crestfallen. Radiation will have been spread by this explosion, she pressed on after a second’s thought-gathering and with renewed vigour. Her expert played down the threat; it was likely that there would be some small amount of radioactive material in the vented steam – an inevitability of the cooling procedure – but the amount would be harmless and quickly decay.
The anger in the presenter was barely contained. You didn’t have to be the owner of a website with an active imagination to read the thought processes in her eyes (but it helped); an expert who had refused to mention any of the key words or phrases “panic”, “death”, “mushroom clouds”, “Hiroshima”, or “mutants” was not the sort of expert she wanted. She wanted to know about the dangers. Her expert said they were limited. She wanted to know about theoretical doomsday scenarios and remembered that she’d heard the word “meltdown” before and it sounded scary. A response about fuel rods, steam, water, heat, and shielding bored her and that brought that piece to an end.
I was as disappointed as the presenter but for a different reason. I wanted to see news events reported in an informative manner, not prodded at for sensationalised sound bites. I told my wife this and dabbed at my chin where the tea was dribbling down.
“Slurp, swallow, then moan,” my wife advised with a look that warned against reading anything untoward into the command. “Changing that order leads to spills.”
BBC News 24 then cut to a reporter in Japan who proceeded to explain that the authorities were stopping him from getting near the nuclear facility as it was apparently dangerous and restricted or something so he was making do by observing the local people who were not panicking, trying to clean up, not panicking, queuing for petrol, and not panicking.
“Is there any sign of panic?” asked the presenter, and my wife applied a life-saving Heimlich manoeuvre on me to release the toast from my airways. The reporter in the field paused and replied that there wasn’t but it was difficult to tell because not many people spoke English.
That was enough for me. I switched off.
Come on BBC! We’ve already got Sky News for crap like this! Report events, listen to experts, try to check an occasional fact, don’t compete to get scary words on air, and don’t ever, ever, ever send journalists to cover a story in a country where they have no means to talk to local people in their own language.
On Saturday the 12th of March in the year 2011 BBC news died for me.