In this last week, which has seen people panic-buying petrol across the UK, we have been reminded of two unpleasant facts which are likely to be rearing their ugly heads much more frequently in the future. For those who don’t know, a mooted strike by a union which counts petrol tanker drivers as its members quickly led to mile-long queues at filling stations, leading to one woman accidentally setting herself alight as she tried to decant fuel which in turn led to calls for rolling heads at the ministerial level.
All of this was sparked by some union reps saying they might consider calling a strike over safety conditions.
The first ugly fact that I mentioned was the reminder that any threat to the fuel supply causes mass hysteria. In this instance there has been (so far) no actual supply interruption, but that didn’t stop people overreacting.
The second reminder was that in these situations the mass media amply fulfils its role of hysteria amplifier, quickly weighing up the situation, coming to hasty conculsion about who or what is to blame and then shouting PANIC at the top of its lungs while jumping up and down and getting all red in the face. In this case they decided to blame Frances Maude, the Conservative Party chairman, who suggested that if there was to be a strike it might be a good idea to fill up a jerry can with fuel just in case. Normally this would be considered stirling advice, after all, doesn’t it pay to be prepared?
Now, I’m not exactly a fan of the Conservatives and I’m sure that Frances Maude has done many questionable things in his life to get to the position where he is now – but advising people to fill up jerry cans with petrol can hardly be counted as one of them. But the blame for the woman who accidentally burned herself is being laid firmly at his door, and a quick Google search of ‘Frances Maude blame’ reveals 631 news articles featuring those exact words. Yes, not for the first time and certainly not for the last, the media has gone stark raving mad.
I should know. I was at the centre of some media madness about a year ago. I’d been working as a freelance contributor at The Guardian, acting as a kind of ‘our man in Copenhagen’. The Guardian, it should be understood, has a kind of strange fetish for Denmark that stops just short of the country warranting its own pull-out section every week. To the average Guardian reader the country represents a kind of liberal utopia free of crooked politicians, inequality and obese people. It’s wrong on all three counts but having spent almost 10 years living here, two as editor of a Copenhagen based newspaper, I’m quite familiar with the phenomenon and have come to accept that I live in an inkblot country onto which outsiders project their own fervid imaginings, whatever they may be.
So there I was, trying to feed them stories which I thought would fit in with their readers’ preconceived notions and I came across a small story that I thought might be of some interest. It concerned a tiny shop in Copenhagen which sold foreign foods to homesick expats, who had been told some months before that they were no longer allowed to stock the savoury spread Marmite on their shelves. The reason given by the man from the Food and Veterinary Administration was that the dark sticky spread was fortified with vitamins, meaning that it had to have special permission to be sold. The Danes love banning things that are foreign, and Marmite was just the latest product, along with a whole raft of others from Horlicks to Birds Eye custard. To get permission to sell Marmite would have involved a lot of red tape and cost, and the shop owner was angry because it was a best selling product.
I asked The Guardian if they might be interested in this and immediatley was told that ‘Yes,’ they were. I said I’d write it up within four or five days, just as soon as I’d been and interviewed the owner and taken some pictures. They got back and said that they needed it the next day. ‘Okay,’ I said (a little huffily because I had other things to do).
The next day they were onto me again. ‘When is it it ready?’ I was asked. But I could not get it finished until I had a quote from the Food and Veterinary Administration, and every time I rang them they seemed totally uninterested and claimed they’d look into this mar-mme-tay product I was talking about. When I rang them for about the fifth time the spokesman, clearly annoyed, went and interrupted the relevant minister in a meeting (after I told them who I was writing it for). She didn’t think it was important either – she was probably busy with other things, like plans to protect against the country against Monsanto – and so I had to warn them that I’d have to say they had ‘no comment’.
Then my phone rang and it was one of the Guardian editors who told me ‘At the moment we have Obama meeting the Queen on the front page and we want to replace that with your story-‘ I gulped. ‘Okay, I’ll file it now,’ I said.
Needless to say, the story sparked a storm out of all proportion to its merit. Within hours it became the biggest story in the UK, with every major news outlet clamouring to get their own version of it and, briefly, it was the most Tweeted topic in the entire world. People in Britain, who will tolerate practically anything apart from fuel price rises and someone messing with Marmite, went predictably insane, throwing Danish bacon and furniture into skips and promising to stop their children playing with Lego and turning down the volume when Sandy Toksvig was on the radio. My inbox began to fill with angry emails asking me what the hell I thought I was doing and, when a Danish journalist got through to me on my mobile and started shrieking ‘Are you trying to start a trade war?’ at me I decided it was time to turn it off and bury it in a draw in the kitchen. It’s probably fair to say that I went into hiding.
It should be remembered that Denmark is particularly sensitive to boycotts having had most of its products boycotted across large parts of the Muslim world following the Mohammed Cartoon debacle (which I inadvertently almost became a victim of, but that’s a story for another day).
After several days, during which the Sun newspaper made the Danish ambassador in London come out and make an apology, Marmite was debated in the Danish parliament and angry groups of geographically challenged Britons called for the picketing of Ikea, the story slowly began to fade away and I began to peek out from beneath my rock. The stampeding herd had passed me by and all that was left to show was the trampled earth and a faint savoury yeast smell hanging in the air.
So what did I learn from this experience? Many people congratulated me for getting a story on the front page of The Guardian as if I’d uncovered some kind of major corruption scandal, but in truth I was a bit ashamed of the whole affair. I’d been badgering The Guardian for a while to take some of my peak oil articles seriously but had been met with a polite rebuff. They weren’t sure which section to file them under and, in any case, wasn’t the whole peak oil thing just speculation? No, the only black viscous liquid they wanted me to write about came in little jars rather than 42 gallon barrels. So in the end I just came away with a small sum of money and a great after dinner anecdote.
So the question remains: just why is the mainsteam media so poor at addressing peak oil issues and all the worrying depletion issues which surround it and instead fixate on trivial matters?
Who knows – perhaps it is not ‘human interest enough’ or maybe it defies categorisation so effectively, if one considers the wider issues associated with peak oil. Or maybe it is just a little too uncomfortable and close to the bone, after all, even The Guardian is driven by a ‘cash engine’ of dealing in cars. Could it be that its just too … boring?
Perhaps it is just a simple case of not wanting to rock the boat, but whatever it is the end effect is that we’re not being informed of the really important stuff. Whatever your idealogically-driven choice in newpsaper it’s a bit like being given the choice of voting for the Democrats or Republicans in the US which was memorably described by Noam Chomsky as being offered the chance to vote for one of two wings of the Business Party – and newspapers of all stripes are more or less the echo chambers of the big parties and know where their allegiences lie.
Of course that’s not to say that the big newspapers never address these important issues. It’s quite common for, say, The Independent or even The Telegraph to have a self-flagellating front page splash about an approaching doomsday scenario. But these are flash-in-the-pan affairs and you only have to turn a few pages in to get to the travel section in which readers are encouraged to burn aviation fuel like it’s going out of fashion, or the business section which advises readers on which commodities or stocks are worth pouring your money into for the purposes of getting richer.
And perhaps that is just it. We live in a commercial world and facing up to an energy depleted future just doesn’t sell adverts. To be consistently the bearer of the kind of sobering reality that peak oil represents sits uneasily with the fashion and shopping supplements – heck, even the environment sections are more often than not just cheerleaders for the biotech and nuclear industries. Any newspaper editor who gave serious column inches to peak oil and all the kind of things that people in their thousands read voraciously on blogs written by the likes of Dmitry Orlov and John Michael Greer, might soon find herself shuffling uncomfortably before the withering gaze of the sales director who wants to know why BMW have just pulled out of their seriously lucrative full page advertising campaign. ‘Are you trying to lose everyone their job?’ they might ask.
There’s a bitter irony in all of this as well because for all the theorising surrounding peak oil and societal collapse, the moment it actually starts to bite people hard, instead of a sudden surge in interest people will be too busy just trying to survive and the time for pointy-headed postulating will be past. At this time anyone brave enough to say ‘told you so’ will likely be blamed for not ‘telling us so’ enough as people will be looking for scapegoats – in the way that environmentalists were perveresely blamed by oil companies who finally accepted the reality of anthropogenic global warming for ‘not being effective communicators’.
So if people don’t want to think about these issues – probably the most important that humankind has ever faced – then I doubt any amount of exposure in the MSM will have any effect. It may even have the opposite desired effect if powerful business-as-usual interests direct their firepower on peak oilers and publicly manage to ‘out’ us in the way they have done with climate scientists.
So maybe it’s time to stop looking to the mainstream media and instead focus on the small community of bloggers – and when the plug is pulled out of its wall socket and the internet goes dark or is unaffordable we’ll turn back to paper and ink and printing presses. At least you can insulate a wall with an old newsletter – something you can’t do with an old blog.