EU Referendum

Media: opportunity costs


Even with the story spread all over the papers and dominating the broadcast news, I am still finding it very hard to get excited about Allegra Stratton and the Downing Street party – or parties.

I do understand, however, that the Downing Street shenanigans (alleged) add a further layer of disgust in the eyes of many, about the arrogance of our political élites and the impression that one rule applies to "them" and another to us – another Dominic Cummings "eye test" moment.

This goes along with the widely-held view that Johnson is lying through his teeth again – which is what he always does when confronted with an uncomfortable truth. But there seem very few people prepared to believe his denials.

As far as can be measured at this early stage, something of these negative sentiments are spilling over into the reaction to the prime minister's announcement yesterday that the government is to renew its guidance about home-working, is to require Covid passports for certain large gatherings, and is to extend the rules for mask wearing. There is also a hint that mandatory vaccination is being considered.

One must be careful here, not to take the social media reaction as an accurate indicator of public opinion, but if the immediate responses are any guide, the authorities are going to be struggling to enforce these new measures, given the multiple pledges of civil disobedience.

Commentators are thereby suggesting that Johnson has been badly damaged by the affair, with Pete suggesting that, politically, he is "dead man walking". Once again, one is reminded of Matthew Parris's prescience, now nearly a month ago.

And, although I look forward to the day when we finally see the end of Johnson, rather like Pete I would sooner see him taken down over a substantive policy issue than what amounts to an essentially trivial issue. But, rather like the FBI bringing down Al Capone over tax evasion, I suppose we must take what we can get.

I cannot help feeling though, that if we had serious political parties, and especially a serious opposition, we would be seeing Johnson being torn to shreds over important issues such as his stance on climate change, his energy policy, over defence and many other matters – not least his false promises over the NHS.

If anything, though, the furore over a noisy cheese & wine party that took place 12 months ago in Downing Street is having the effect of drowning out substantive issues. For instance, as one commentator remarks, on the grid yesterday was Priti Patel's Borders Bill to stop illegal migrants. Yet scarcely anyone heard the message.

This is an effect about which we hear too little. For every story entertained by the media, dozens are spiked and when – as is the case with the contemporary media – they start obsessing over such a narrow spectrum of events, all sorts of things get left out. We are paying a heavy opportunity cost and the currency is public ignorance.

The thing is, although the media hyperventilates about the stuff they put before us, much of it is essentially very tedious. Are we really interested in how many parties there were in Downing Street last year?

On the other hand, some of the stuff which is being left out – even if not of immediate, earth-shattering importance – is really interesting and may have important implications over the longer term.

In the absence of media attention, therefore, I found myself last night looking at online copies of The Siberian Times, with the edition from 3 November reporting an unusual shortage of snow in southern Yakutia, the world's coldest permanently inhabited region, with temperatures between 4-12ºC above the norm.

This ties in with many other stories which have made the legacy media, all on the theme of the climate change and the melting permafrost, a subject to which a number of papers have given unstinting coverage. The Independent, as late as 28 November, was featuring the adventures of a father and son team carrying out investigations in the Yakutia region, where they could "find no sign of permafrost as global warming permeates Siberia’s soil".

What makes this really interesting, though, is the piece in The Siberian Times of 3 December, which reports: "Classes cancelled at the world's coldest school as temperature in Oymyakon plunges to -60ºC". Winter had finally caught up with Oymyakon, in the Yakutia region, producing near-record low temperatures – and plenty of snow.

One place where the record has indisputably been broken is in St. Petersburg. According to the news agency Tass, cold weather in the Russian city had broken a daily record set 128 years ago as temperature dropped to about -21ºC on the night of 5 December - 0.4 degrees lower than on the same day back in 1893.

Incidentally, St. Petersburg is not the only place breaking records. In Sweden on 6 December, it was reported that in the remote Swedish settlement of Naimakka, the temperature plummeted to -43.8ºC, setting a new seasonal record. This had been accompanied by heavy snowfall in the region, with up to 14 inches in one area.

And yes, we do appreciate that this is "weather", but it is interesting all the same, especially as a contrast to the legacy media's tendency to harness stories of severe weather to the climate change bandwagon.

Speaking of which (interesting stuff, that is), we can finally put to bed the Northern Sea Route and the ice-trapped ships story, which I broached on 15 November, when the drama was already more than a week old. As of 8 December the last convoy of seven vessels has been escorted by a nuclear icebreaker out of the ice, free to continue their journeys independently.

Interestingly, the Russian authorities are now considering a ban on foreign vessels using the NSR.

"Favourable ice conditions of past years distorted the impression of some shipowners how to work in the waters of the Northern Sea Route", General Director Mustafa Kashka says, suggesting that the authorities need to pay more attention to the choice of vessels operating in the last months of summer-autumn navigation.

All's well that ends well, but armed with the knowledge of this season's drama, we can revisit the area in years to come with a better understanding of the situation, which is more than could be done if we had been reliant on the British media.

And yet, while the focus is on Downing Street parties, the "net zero" beat goes on, largely unregarded, even though the indications are that the policy is unaffordable.

Thus, while at least one newspaper headline complains that Johnson is "taking the public for fools", so is the media, feeding us on a diet of trivia and ignoring many of the substantive issues. Still, if it brings the resignation of Johnson that bit closer, it may just have been worth it, although the opportunity cost is unnecessarily high.

Also published on Turbulent Times.