Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Mystic Met Office - the 'forecasts that are not forecasts'

Autonomous Mind has just published further information on the Met Office story, showing that in internal discussions, the Met Office's 'forecasts that were not forecasts' were nethertheless referred to numerous times as forecasts. As AM puts it, "The Met Office logic is that although it quacks like a duck and walks like a duck it is actually a horse."

There's lots of spin going on here, however there is no avoiding the fact that the 'forecast that was not a forecast' was used by the National Grid to determine their winter preparedness report, as I pointed out on Friday. They apparently didn't even have access to the now notorious "secret" report (the "secret" adjective originating from the BBC's Roger Harrabin).

The Mystic Met Office has now responded to the Register's inquiries on this issue, stating that it "has never suggested that we warned cabinet office of an 'exceptionally cold early winter'." - thus throwing Harrabin immediately under the bus.

Harrabin's response? Now that is another interesting story in and of itself. He claims: "This doesn't match a more conclusive forecast I gleaned from a Met Office contact in December" .

So what is this "more conclusive forecast" and who gave it to you Roger?

I note that he is also not paying attention when he says: 'I note a blog report (which I cannot yet verify) saying that a civil servant commented: "The Met Office seasonal outlook for the period November to January is showing no clear signals for the winter."'

Roger, that "comment" is clearly visible in the FOIA material I received, amongst the email traffic. It's more than just a "comment", it is the government outlining its official position, with which the Met Office appears to agree in its return email.

On that particular point Roger, it leaves a striking odd one out. You.

There's also another deception in play here. Harrabin goes on:

'A spokesman for the Cabinet Office told me they had passed the forecast to key stakeholders ("Government departments, local council as appropriate - we don't have a list").' [My emphasis]

Are we really to believe that the "key stakeholders" didn't include the National Grid? (Not that it would have helped much anyway).

You may be wondering why I highlighted that word. Here's another clue:

Both Autonomous Mind and the Register articles highlight a claim found in the Mail:

"Last night the Met Office confirmed it had passed on the advice, but a spokesman denied that withholding it from the public was motivated by embarrassment.

‘We did brief the Cabinet Office in October on what we believed would be an
exceptionally cold and long winter,’ she said."

Whilst Roger Harrabin is definitely not off the hook - and neither, if the veracity of the Mail's source is to be believed - is the Mystic Met Office, there is another underlying cultural problem:

The use of 'spokespeople'. These are used so often that it now drifts into the background consciousness for most of us, most of the time. Yet it is an extremely insidious propagandistic technique. The use of an anonymous spokesperson gets the organisation, or person, they are representing off the hook. There is no chain of accountability and any statements they make can easily be dismissed in the future.

The fact that both the Met Office and the Cabinet office are deploying spokespeople on this issue concerns me. It means we're not going to get to the actual truth without some serious hard work and implies that someone definitely does have something to hide, even if it is just their own bumbling incompetence.

Whenever this occurs journalists should immediately insist on knowing the identity of the person providing the information. Of course they don't, because they want easy copy, and access to the source of that copy. So it's up to the rest of us to apply the pressure and ask, every single time, who? The reasons why this is such a pressing issue are described eloquently by Heather Brooke in her excellent new book, 'The Silent State':

"Official spokespeople are powerful because they speak for the powerful; anonymity means they can exercise that power without being held individually accountable for it....When a 'spokesman' makes an accusation or spreads a smear, what recourse is there for the target? Anonymising spokespeople suits some journalists because if every source is simply a 'spokesman' or 'official', then it's easy to make up any old quote to suit your story.....As long as secrecy and anonymity reign, public sector bureaucracies will bethe hiding places for the incompetent, lazy and corrupt"

And if that doesn't hammer the point home enough, try this summation from Brooke:

"...we cannot be an informed electorate without access to information and a right to hold officials to account. And if we're not an informed electorate then we cannot call ourselves a democracy." [Emphasis mine]

This use of selective anonymity also has the potential to inflict very real damage beyond just the nature of our democracy:

"...special advisers and spin doctors operate a principle of never admitting a fault. can't we be treated by our leaders as grown-ups? Spin is costly for taxpayers because small problems aren't acknowledged, they are spun into successes or stifled until they reach a magnitude of catastrophic proportion."

And we've just seen this principle in action with regard to the Met Office, the government and the BBC:

Due to yet another year of officially sanctioned lack of preparedness, chaos, suffering and likely unecessary deaths, have occurred. The game of pass the blame parcel will be no comfort to those identified by Anna Raccoon as on the receiving end - "Those pensioners found frozen solid in their front garden, the scenes of half starved refugees huddled against the cold at Heathrow airport, the two kilometre long lines of frozen travellers queuing round the block at St Pancreas Station, the double dip recession caused by the ‘extreme weather’"

All of which no one is willing to take responsibility for as the parties at risk of having to take it are hiding behind 'spokespeople' already. This looks like a tough battle ahead to pin down who is responsible, who is telling us the truth and who is lying.

And its a battle - yet another - only being fought in earnest by the 'fifth estate' of the blogosphere, with little assistance from the 'fourth estate' as they languish in the doldrums of increasing irrelevancy and distant relationship to the truth.

But fight it we will.


SadButMadLad said...

There's a clue to the identify of the spokesperson - "...a spokesman denied that withholding it from the public was motivated by embarrassment.

‘We did brief the Cabinet Office in October on what we believed would be an
exceptionally cold and long winter,’ she said." Unless it's lazy writing using spokesman for all spokespeople. It could be Allison Potter-Drake who is head of the Cabinet Press Office who would be the one speaking on such an important issue - telling lies.

Katabasis said...

I noticed that 'she' too - though I've noticed different news outlets handle the gendered language differently. Some, as in this case will use 'spokesman' to refer to someone male or female.

Thanks for putting a potential name to it, at least that narrows any guessing down.

Genette said...

Idle googling: the phrase "Met Office spokeswoman" is usually followed by the name Helen Chivers.

Katabasis said...

Thanks Genette.

and then the_doctor said...

Great work Katabasis! Your last paragraph sums it up very well.

Anoneumouse said...

Tut, tut then they look all surprised when 50 million people rise up in revolt.

Anoneumouse said...

Those metrological folk and their lying machines

The tempreture goes Up, Tiddly, Up, Up.

And never Down, Tiddly, Down, Down.

They enchant Poloticians and steal all the scenes

With their temperatures Up, Tiddly, Up, Up

And never Down, Tiddly, Down, Down.

Up! never Down! lying around.

Bluffing the bluff and defying the crowd.

They're all, frightfully mean

Those metrological folk and their lying machines

banned said...

Interesting work KB.

As an aside, don't be fooled into thinking that National Grid (who you might think would pay handsomely for an accurate forcast) is a cosy Government Dept whose aim in life is to keep us connected and warm. They are a private company half of whose activity is in the north east USA.