Not a sleighbell winter
“Brrr-ace yourselves! Britain to shiver in -20ºC in weeks as councils stockpile extra grit”. So the Mail on Sunday warned us in October. Blizzards, snowdrifts, locusts with the faces of men and the teeth of lions: we would become, it cheerfully assured us, prey to every nightmare nature could devise.
Last week the story flipped. “December has sprung! Spring blooms arrive early and autumn blossom lingers… so what happened to our winter?” I scoured the text but could find no mention that the Mail had forecast the polar opposite.
There are plenty of red faces in the newspaper industry, but they are not the result of embarrassment: an emotion as rare in this business as summer snowflakes. Most of the papers that basted and grilled the Met Office for its barbecue summer forecast predicted a sleighbell winter. The Sun, for example, announced that “Britain will shiver through a ‘Siberian December’”. The Express foresaw “a big freeze”, beginning at the end of October, which would be “as severe and sustained as last winter’s” and bring “record low temperatures”.
Ours was, as it turned out, the second warmest autumn on record, while temperatures in December were a little higher than average. So where did the Siberian forecasts come from? According to one of the journalists who ran this story, they originated with the secretary of state for transport who told senior journalists that there would be a terrible winter.
The newspapers then asked the Met Office to confirm Hammond’s prediction. It refused. They chose to rely on two alternative forecasting companies: Exacta Weather, and Positive Weather Solutions (PWS). Exacta, on which the Mail relied for its predictions of icy doom, warned of a “severely cold and snowy winter”. “It is likely that temperature and snowfall records will be broken”.
Both companies seem to publish only positive results. Exacta, for example, tells us that it correctly forecast strong winds this winter.
Unlike the Met Office, the alternative forecasters are neither roasted nor frozen out when they get it wrong. In 2010, for example, the Daily Mail announced that “the country really is on course for a barbecue summer”. This time, it told its readers, the prediction “comes from a forecaster with a somewhat better record on the subject than the poor old Met Office”.
There is a subtext at work. The Met Office, like the BBC, is the subject of intense tabloid hostility, because it refuses to accept the consensus in the right-wing press that man-made climate change is a myth. Perversely, it prefers to rely on data. The incompetence of the Met Office and the superior skills of other forecasters are now part of the litany of climate change denial.
Weather forecasting, in the hands of the press, has become a political science.
— The Guardian, London