Sometimes I have to (albeit briefly) question the value of having a free press. It seems that the freedoms enjoyed by the press are far from beneficial for the public good. (However, I am aware of the alternatives so I suppose we have to live with it.)
Today, one of the headlines on the radio news was about impending strike action which may close down a fairly crucial power plant. Basically, workers at the Grangemouth refinery are planning a 2-day strike, the closure of the refinery has the knock on effect of cutting power to one of the main Scottish pipelines reducing the flow of oil into the UK by about 1/3. Yes. That is it. Flow will be reduced by 1/3 for two days.
There have been loads of statements from the Scottish executive and various government bodies explaining that there is at least 10 days worth of stock (10 days of no oil coming in) and as long as nobody panics, everything will be fine.
Did you spot the important bit. As long as nobody panics. Sadly, not panicking does not make good news.
Cut to the afternoon news bulletin on the radio. First off, this is not presented in a calm, matter of fact manner. It is read out by an excitable and breathless woman with a lot of emphasis on how prices are going to rise and people may face shortages (less emphasis on the may, than the shortages). One of the radio stations had people call in to “share their experiences of panic on the forecourts.” Nothing like a bit of pre-empting there…
Anyway, there were four callers talking about how it had “gone crazy” today and people were buying fuel much more than normal. Weirdly, one of the callers claimed to be at the same petrol station (gas station for colonials) as I was at, getting fuel for my car. The caller claimed the place was full and had been all day. I sat and listened to her, while I looked around and was the only car there. Hmm.
As I drive about a lot in my job, I have passed a lot of petrol stations today and for most of the day none have been busy. Cut to about 1900hrs onwards and things changed. Lots of people getting lots of fuel. Now the radio stations are exuberantly talking about how the “stay calm” advice has been ignored and “everyone is panic buying fuel” and how “stocks cant be expected to last long at this rate.”
Call me a cynic, but from my take on today the whole un-necessary panic (if it actually exists) is something generated by media reporting. Like all herd problems, once a few people start to run every one else does. In this case, when a few people start to “panic buy” fuel, everyone has to join in and it becomes a bit of an arms race because now stocks will really begin to struggle (especially on a local level). The oil companies must love this – the strikers are actually doing the wrong thing! – because now, as you would imagine crude oil prices are going up even more. The news stations love this because it gives them all the things they like to report on and it hits home to everyone. However, the general public have been somewhat shepherded into buying loads of fuel as the prices rise.
Is this all the fault of the media – no, not at all. That is most certainly not the point I am seeking to make. However, I do think that public “panics” (not just in this case, about everything from MMR to crime) are largely the result of irresponsible and sensationalist reporting.
The media has a unique power to influence the public to a greater extent than any other facet of our society. Is it using this power responsibly?