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Monday, January 18, 2010

Here is the news: a snowflake has fallen in High Wycombe by Mark Steel

Even the financial news has been about the weather's impact on business

We've gone mad again. For a whole week every news report has begun with some idiot in a field saying something like, "As you can see, here in Wiltshire the snow has literally COVERED MY SHOELACE. And it's not just snowed in this field, it's snowed in that one over there as well. So there is literally no escape."

Then it goes back to the studio and we're told, "The police are strongly advising everyone not to get off their settee unless it's absolutely essential, and if you do insist on going to the toilet, make sure you take a Thermos of soup, a blanket and a gun. They also say anyone who goes outside is guaranteed to die."

Then comes a graph displaying coldness through history, as an expert tells us, "If you look at the siege of Stalingrad, at least they had periods of thawing in the areas where the Germans burned things down, but for us, no such respite I'm afraid."

One night the snow dominated the first 20 minutes of the news, until they went on to a story about Afghanistan. But even then you expected them to say "Joining us live is John Simpson from Kabul. John, how's the snow there?"

"Well Huw, it's not too bad here but the Met Office has issued severe warnings for Helmand Province and is advising people not to travel there unless your journey is absolutely necessary."

Even the financial news was about the snow's impact on business, until it seemed they'd say, "There was little movement in the money markets today, as no transactions by computer were possible as the internet has simply become too icy."

If this had gone on any longer a group of African pop stars would have made an Ice Aid charity song for us, that started "We're sending you our grit, As we really can't just sit, And watch you die out like the dinosaur because it's minus four."

And yet there really wasn't that much snow, and hardly anywhere was it as deadly as they were predicting. Several times I saw an outside reporter telling us, "Just a few essential items are getting through here," while behind them a road was functioning perfectly normally.

One day they kept going to a reporter in High Wycombe, where it wasn't snowing at all, and asking him, "Is it snowing yet?" "Not yet", he said, which provoked questions along the lines of, "But if a disruptive level of snow were to fall, presumably that would be disruptive, wouldn't it?" The reporter might as well have said, "Also I can tell you no volcanoes have erupted here either, but if one does erupt it could mean High Wycombe gets literally covered in lava, and that could make shopping very difficult indeed."

So you become numb to it all, and for all I remember the next night's news started with an announcement that the four horsemen of the apocalypse have issued a statement denying their involvement: "Even we wouldn't consider coming before this unprecedented lengthy cold snap. Pestilence is one thing, but we've seen a man in a Toyota literally sliding across his driveway."

But it's hard not to get taken in. When the news, the reliable source of all worldly information, tells you earnestly all day that the country's suffocating from fearsome levels of snow, you feel it must be true even as you look out of the window and see most people pottering about as normal in a couple of inches of the stuff. And this is why the Iraq inquiry should have begun its questioning of Alastair Campbell by talking about the snow.

Because it's not so much the individual distortions, exaggerations and twisted statistics that mislead an entire population, it's the atmosphere created when all of these are knitted together into a relentless assault of statements, dossiers, speeches and headlines.

For example, when every news channel repeats all day every day that a dictator is planning to attack us with weapons that can be launched in 45 minutes, and there is "no doubt, no doubt at all" about this, even the most sceptical start to think there must be something in it. Which is why it got to a point where Colin Powell could present a photo showing Saddam's hidden missiles, and lots of us said, "Oh yes there they are", when there was absolutely nothing there at all.

So the most worrying part of the week's TV snow mania was when they kept telling us, "the Army is on stand-by." Because from the Government's recent military record, if the Army was sent in to deal with the weather, they'd get bogged down until July. Then they'd demand another 10,000 troops, and it would all come unstuck when they were forced to investigate a regiment caught torturing snowmen with a blow-lamp.

First published in The Independent on 13th January 2010

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