Praying for meltdown: The media and the nukes
Science and the public lose out with TV's Hollywood disaster film obsession
Comment Sensationalism has always been part of the popular media - but Fukushima is a telling and troubling sign of how much the media has changed in fifty years: from an era of scientific optimism to one where it inhabits a world of fantasy - creating a real-time Hollywood disaster movie with a moralising, chivvying message.
Not so long ago, the professionals showed all the deferential, forelock-tugging paternalism of the dept of "Keep Calm And Carry On". That era lasted into the 1960s. Now the driving force is the notion that "We're all DOOMED – and it's ALL OUR FAULT" that marks almost every news bulletin. Health and environment correspondents will rarely be found debunking the claims they receive in press releases from lobby groups – the drama of catastrophe is too alluring. Fukushima has been the big one.
The Fukushima situation has yet to cause any measurable radiological health effects, and workers at the site were far less hard hit by the quake, tsunami and related events than just about anyone in the disaster zone, but nonetheless the nuclear story rapidly eclipsed the tens of thousands killed directly by the quake. TV's reaction to the crisis shows how at odds it is with a more rational audience, those who know something about radiation, its consequences, and the human body's capacity to absorb it and recover from it. The crisis for the media is that thanks to the internet, we can now all bypass these conduits for superstition and stupidity.
We've given the media's treatment of Fukushima plenty of attention in the past fortnight, so it's hardly worth reiterating. The reactors endured a Force 9 earthquake and 15m high tsunami – and three safety systems failed. The ageing plant was never going to explode or meltdown ("like a dirty bomb" we were told); the containment vessels held firm.
In the first weekend, TV chose "experts" who could be relied upon to ignore this - and instead highlight the mythology of nuclear hazards. I noted two examples in the first forty eight hours. The BBC chose a radiation expert called Dr Christopher Busby, billing him as a former adviser to the government on radiation.
"If this stuff comes out then it's going to make what's happened so far, in terms of the tsunami damage, look a little bit like an entrée to the real course," predicted Busby, sending viewers diving behind the sofa.
But Busby's chief notoriety is his modelling work on natural background radiation, which is highly controversial. It's often self-published, and the Journal of Radiological Protection put out a paper (PDF/45KB) debunking his work, pointing out serious flaws.
"Chris Busby ... is apparently quite prepared to self-publish reports containing glaring errors in data and/or analyses; nonetheless, the findings are duly given publicity in the media, presumably a principal objective. Efforts should be made to enable journalists, in particular, to distinguish between the reliability to be placed upon the results given in self-published documents and those appearing in scientific journals," the journal noted in 2004.
Was he there to keep the plot of the disaster movie rolling, or to provide clear scientific advice?
Busby, it must be remembered, is also a scientific advisor to the Green Party. As the Institute of Physics pointed out:
"Chris Busby is essentially an aspiring politician who happens to have scientific qualifications – he is the Green Party’s spokesperson on science and technology and has stood for election to the European Parliament – and, in my view, his actions must be seen in this light. It would be asking too much of him to make substantial concessions on the very issue that has brought the media publicity that provides the fuel to drive a political career."
Meanwhile Channel 4 found a Professor Walt Patterson, from think-tank Chatham House, who also talked up the disaster. An advocate of global governance and a critic of nuclear power (and more recently fossil fuels) for 40 years, his reaction was predictable. Another anti-nuclear activist, John Large, also passed himself off as an unbiased pundit on the news channels. He's Greenpeace's favourite "hired gun".
"What the Japanese government are trying to do is consistent with a major radiological disaster," Patterson opined on Channel 4 News. And what I try to do with a football, sometimes, is consistent with a World Cup winning hat-trick. But not quite the same thing.
Admittedly, it's hard to find talking heads at weekends. But even if Bohr, Einstein and Teller had been wandering past the gates of TV centre (or Horseferry Road) that weekend, one suspects the producers wouldn't have been interested. They wouldn't fit the script.
Words like "meltdown" and "radiation leak" have a mythical potency – and TV reported the mythology, not the facts. Fukushima came to represent man's hubris and his folly in "defying nature". The Daily Mail, for example, helpfully made this quite clear: "Nature's Deadly Rage, it fumed. You could hear echoes all over the media. BBC TV News described "nature’s fury".
It's an interesting metaphor.
A Voice Tells me You Should Stop What You're Doing
First it assumes nature is a person. It then assumes this person is a) making moral judgments about humanity, and b) has decided humanity has fallen short of these moral standards is in some way, and is really angry about it, and c) is handing out arbitrary punishment. Strangely, the kind of people who trot out this metaphor are often well educated, and think of themselves as superior rational beings to religious people. At dinner parties many can be found mocking "sky gods" or "flying spaghetti monsters". But give them a natural catastrophe and they'll instantly conjure up their own Vengeful Overlord to throw back at human scientific progress. One who, uncannily, shares the same political prejudices that they do!
Nuclear energy remains an incredible scientific breakthrough for humanity, one of the greatest, and it can be used to blow ourselves up, or provide huge benefits, taking billions out of discomfort and need. No Gods are needed to be invoked or implied here.
Implicit in the media coverage of nuclear risks is the idea that anything mankind does harms nature's "equilibrium". As Adam Curtis explains in his new series, this is a false notion - ecosystems aren't in balance, but constantly renewing themselves. The idea that nature is in some kind of "harmony", and would go about its business if only it wasn't for those pesky humans is a medieval, superstitious view of the world that was popular at a time when Pagans had a monopoly on sky magic, and life expectancy was 40. After the tsunami surrounded Fukushima, News TV stopped short of sacrificing a goat – or a child – on our behalf, but perhaps it's only a matter of time.
A different choice of talking heads early on would have produced a quite different, and much more interesting picture of events. We might have learned that cancer rates among nuclear workers are lower than those of employees in finance or retail. (Let's close all the shops!) Or that the nuclear workers have suffered seven fatalities in the last decade, while wind farms have caused 44 deaths (Let's ban windmills!).
A calm, technically informed expert without an axe to grind (they do exist) might have explained that modern reactors, such as thorium salt or pebble bed designs, can be operated by a drunken idiot – although we'd prefer them not to be drunk, or an idiot, obviously. Instead we heard from a Green who wondered why the reactor hadn't been built "above tsunami level". A reactor with a fragile floor that couldn't be cooled by seawater? And the reason we don't today enjoy cheap electricity from these even safer reactors?
I'm with Stupid
You can reasonably argue that the mass media has always been incredibly stupid – and loves scientific doomsday myths, economic collapse and immigration panics. There was probably a brief period when it approached scientific subjects rationally and optimistically, and reported them faithfully. But I see the biggest consequences of Fukushima as a problem for the broadcasters here, as the mythological approach shows diminishing returns.
The internet has allowed people to find things out for themselves, bypassing the Hollywood narrative demanded by TV producers and newspaper editors. For example, this splendidly clear technical explanation of the engineering behind the reactors rapidly received several hundred thousand hits. Subsequent reports of the power company's "secrecy" also disappeared as quickly as they arrived, when it was obvious you could watch the radioactivity levels in real-time.
Apart from a few enclaves of the superstitious, who often have a professional interest in the outcome, the public now greets doomsday predictions with indifference or derision. This is a major problem that modern environmentalism has yet to come to terms with. If your politics depends on catastrophe, people reckon, then the policies can't be very good – otherwise they wouldn't require such desperate sales tactics. They wouldn't rely on the suspension of business-as-usual. They'd succeed by calm persuasion.
TV hasn't realised it either - the narrative now looks more like ritual than reporting. By choosing to let us down every time we tune in, it's extinguishing its last reserves of authority, and simply accelerating its obsolescence. ®