A reader of Metric Views has received an unusually comprehensive reply to a complaint about the units used in the the programme ‘Bang goes the theory’. We are posting the letter in full as we feel it may be of interest to our readers.
Late in August, this letter was received by one of our readers from the section at the BBC that deals with viewers’ complaints:
“Thanks for contacting us again regarding BBC One’s ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ on 4 March. Please accept our sincere apologies for the long delay in replying. This is most unfortunate and regrettable especially as you’d taken the time and effort to contact us.
The moment has passed somewhat, but we did at least want to reply to the points you raised and to apologise because the last thing we would want is for you to think that we had chosen to simply ignore your email.
Your complaint has been escalated for review and it does appear that we missed the central point of what you were complaining about – please accept our apologies for this unfortunate oversight.
In terms of units of measurement, the BBC is in a difficult – perhaps an impossible – position because we have a duty on the one hand to use relevant measurements, but on the other we have a duty to ensure as far as possible that our content is easily understood by our hugely diverse audiences who will have vast variations in understanding and knowledge. We have to try and marry the need to aid general understanding against the risk of alienating audiences in whatever terminology we use
Therefore, even when discussing measurement you may hear a velocity expressed as miles per hour and whilst this might not be the correct unit in terms of the original scientific data and calculations, in the UK MPH is far more widely understood that KPH thus the figure is translated to make it more understandable and relevant. We have to make our content accessible to all and a programme like ‘Bang Goes the Theory’ is at the forefront of making science and technology accessible.
There’s no suggestion that the BBC is attempting to mislead by the use of these measurements – in the ‘Countryfile’ example you mention, clearly acre is still a very widely used term in the UK with a very wide understanding of the size the unit represents. Of course, official forms may use hectare but that doesn’t make our data wrong, it’s merely a translation of the figure into an easily understandable form for viewers who may not be as familiar with the metric version. Thus it’s not incorrect as such, just a different expression of the same thing – an equivalent value.
Sadly this is an area where we simply can’t win. For example, we have vocal complainants who believe that all our weather forecasts should still use only imperial units and elsewhere we have complainants who believe that we should use metric measurements for absolutely all references including, say, speeds on UK roads (which are, of course, still in imperial MPH officially).
Another example would be vehicle economy figures. Across Europe these are litres per 100 km or similar, but here in the UK we still generally use miles per gallon even though it’s not possible to buy fuel by the gallon any more – it’s simply that MPG is a far more widely understood premise than the metric equivalent. This may change in coming years and if and when it does we will obviously reflect that.
The best we can do is try and use terms which we feel make the most sense to the everyday viewer who, unlike yourself, won’t necessarily have an expertise in the area being described.
The BBC is charged with reflecting modern Britain and as the country changes as does language and the use of measurement units – for example metric is becoming more and more common whilst some imperial and other measurements are still in general use – thus the BBC will continue to change with the times. To use the weather forecasts again as an example, data is generally shown in metric on graphics, but the presenter will often supplement those figures with inches of rain or snowfall and suchlike. Details like height are often described by official bodies such as the police in metric units, but at the present time it’s argued that feet and inches are more widely understood thus we may use that unit or both
We hope this helps to set the matter in context – in essence, our mission to educate and inform does to a degree have to take in what is easily understandable by the majority of audiences and even if it might not equate to the specific scientific references our figures will be accurate as being a conversion or the optional / supplementary unit.
Please accept our apologies again for the delay and rest assured we registered your further comments on our audience log made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.
Thanks again for contacting us.