Metric usage by the media in Commonwealth countries

John Frewen-Lord contrasts media attitudes towards the metric changeover in Canada and Australia with those in the UK.

It is well known that most Commonwealth countries announced their intention to make the transition to the metric system soon after the UK did so in 1965. It is therefore somewhat ironic that almost all of these countries have overtaken the UK in their conversion programmes, and today show the UK to be the laggard.

I believe that the media in each of these countries has probably played a major – if often an unwitting, and perhaps even occasionally an unwilling – part in persuading the population that metric should be adopted, and in supporting the changeover with few reservations. This is in contrast to the media in the UK, which, for the most part, are opposed to using metric units in their reporting.

This article looks at the overall current metric usage by the media in Australia and Canada, with a brief comment on some other Commonwealth countries, and with a short note as to whether such metric usage – or lack of it – has played, and is continuing to play, a part in promoting metric acceptance (conversion is long complete in most of these countries). It will be seen that the Commonwealth media put UK media to shame.

Australia

‘Deference’ and ‘reverence’ are words that seem to to be missing from the Australian vocabulary. The way, for example, that both the general public and the media quickly depose of the country’s leaders is breath-taking. Yet, out of all the countries once governed by the UK, Australia, with clear leadership from its government, has perhaps achieved a higher level of metrication than anywhere else (New Zealand and South Africa are very close). People, both formally and informally, tend to use metric units to describe most aspects of their lives. The government must have done something right, and somehow persuaded the Australian media to both reflect and support this attitude.

Like the UK itself as well as Canada (see below), Australia has its own Government-owned national radio and TV broadcaster, the ABC (which, just like the BBC, is – affectionately or otherwise – known as ‘Aunty’). As would be expected, the ABC appears to be 100% metric. Even their own Have Your Say site showed that the Australian public is fully metric-conversant (even if they do sometimes do write units incorrectly, such as, in a news item about quad bike safety, one contributor stated it was all about the ‘Kw to Kg’ [sic] ratio).

Australian newspapers are similarly metric-compliant. The Sydney Morning Herald is almost entirely metric when it comes to testing cars (always a good indicator of metric usage), and specifications for cars include only kW for power output and Nm for torque. The only non-metric references are wheel diameters, which are described in inches, but that is almost universal.

All in all, the media in Australia are completely and unselfconsciously comfortable with as near 100% metric usage as makes no difference, and the public would appear to be equally so. It’s no wonder Australia is so metric-friendly.

Canada

Having lived in Canada for over 30 years, I am more familiar with the media situation there than anywhere else. One thing that has always been welcome is the very positive support that all forms of media – radio, TV and print – have given to the use of metric measures. Occasionally this has bordered on the point of exposing themselves to ridicule, such as when Maclean’s, a fortnightly news magazine, converted all USC measurements in an American article it was reprinting into metric units – to three decimal places! One can only speculate as to whether that was some form of protest at the time (late 1970s), or simply lack of metric experience by its editors.

Even in more recent times, not all contributors to Maclean’s have agreed with its total metric approach. The late and slightly eccentric Pierre Berton (a former Maclean’s editor, and one of Canada’s most prolific authors) particularly objected to having to use kilometres when writing an article on early settlers in the Canadian north as it existed centuries ago, saying that kilometres didn’t exist back then. But as the then-current editor pointed out to him, miles didn’t exist back then either (at least in Canada), so kilometres it was.

But Canadian media, like the country itself, has not quite completed the conversion process. It is normal, even at the CBC (government-owned, and the Canadian counterpart to the BBC), to see people’s height and weight expressed in imperial units, while over at Wheels.ca (the motoring section of The Toronto Star newspaper, a slightly left-leaning broadsheet), car power and torque ratings are given in horsepower and lb-ft, even if everything else, such as dimensions, speed, distance and fuel consumption, is in SI.

Even at the more right-wing newspapers, metric usage is still the norm, even if not quite universal. Both the Globe and Mail and the National Post (the latter created by none other than government-hating Conrad Black) are consistent in using little other than metric units, while The Sun (a right-wing red topped tabloid once edited by Conrad Black’s wife, Barbara Amiel), rarely resorts to imperial measurements. In general, it is comparatively rare to see imperial units in Canadian print media.

Why are the Canadian media generally so supportive of metric measures in their reporting? One likely reason is that it is part of the Canadian mind-set to distinguish itself from its rather overbearing neighbour to the south – it’s part of Canada’s more internationalist approach to the world.

Considering this level of media support, it is disappointing that all levels of government in Canada, but in particular the federal government, have for many years recently taken a much more ‘softly-softly’ approach to metric conversion than in the early days – certainly they can’t hide behind the ‘it’s what the media use’ excuse. Nonetheless, I believe that metrication in Canada would be much further behind than it is without such a positive approach from its media.

Other Commonwealth countries

As mentioned above, New Zealand and South Africa are pretty much on a par with Australia. Car tests, for example are almost entirely metric, including correct usage of metric units for power, torque, speed, distance, dimensions and fuel consumption (along with the ubiquitous use of inches for wheel size).

India, on the other hand, still has some way to go. While nominally metric, too many Indian newspapers use the dreaded ‘kph’ to denote speed, while fuel consumption is invariably given in the officially-sanctioned kilometres per litre (usually shown as kpl), instead of the internationally-accepted L/100 km. Other aspects of Indian life seem, like in the UK, to use a mix of metric and imperial units, many, ironically, a holdover from the days of the British Empire.

Malaysian newspapers are all government-owned and controlled. There is much opposition to the US evident in the reporting, and that no doubt is one of many reasons why Malaysian newspapers are virtually 100% metric.

So what does the above tell us? Does the media merely reflect popular usage in its use of metric measurements, or does it help shape such usage? For most of the former Commonwealth countries it is hard to tell, as the two have usually gone hand-in-hand. Perhaps Canada is a good indicator, where the media have been (and still are) constantly ahead of the government in their use of metric measurements, and thereby helped the country accept the metric system far more than it would have otherwise, especially when the constant exposure to the US media (not to mention US commercial pressures) is always conspiring against everyday metric usage.

The message is clear for the UK. Far from merely responding to what it says are simply the wishes of its readers, the press in the UK should be helping to lead, rather than follow, the widespread usage of metric measurements in day-to-day use. The UK is far more metric than we tend to think, but the media lag far behind. Media elsewhere have shown the way. It is time for those in the UK to catch up.

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7 Responses to Metric usage by the media in Commonwealth countries

  1. Michael Glass says:

    Just how metric is Australia? Well, it varies. Sometimes the usage is virtually complete. For example, kilometres have replaced miles for distances and kilograms have replaced stones and pounds for most personal weights, including that for baby nappies. However, babies' birth weights (though not their lengths) are still given in pounds and ounces http://celebrations.smh.com.au/celebration/smh-au/celebrations-announcement.aspx?n=cole-kempis&aid=166303068 as well as grams or kg http://celebrations.smh.com.au/celebration/smh-au/celebrations-announcement.aspx?n=cameron-barker&aid=166697512

    Personal heights are officially in centimetres and this is steadily displacing the traditional feet and inches.

    Shopping is all weighed in grams and kilos and groceries are mostly packed in rounded metric sizes but some imported goods may be described in the older measures. Screen sizes are measured by the diagonal and given in centimetres and inches for television sets, but in inches for other devices. Land is mostly described in metric terms, such as square metres for suburban blocks, but acres still features in many rural ads, usually with hectares, but sometimes without the metric equivalents.

    Tyre widths are in millimetres but their diameters are measured in inches. Tyre pressure is very often given in both kilopascals and psi, and as a result, the older measures have hung on. News reports from the US and the UK frequently mention the older measures, and the older measures are still used for heights of aircraft. Gold is quoted in price per ounce (presumably the troy ounce) and the media still talks about the price of a barrel of oil.

    So when it comes to metrics, the glass might be a lot more than half full, but it's still below the rim.

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  2. philh says:

    I am quite convinced that Britain and America are mainly responsible for the residual use of non-metric in countries that are otherwise fully metricated, both officially and informally.

    In English speaking countries like Canada and Australia, the broadcasters are bound to have an eye on the UK and US markets for their programmes. Then of course there is the internet where national boundaries are practically extinct.

    I cannot think of any other reason why units like feet and inches would persist when people understand perfectly well that the same could be expressed in a familiar unit like the metre.

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  3. Colin Hicks says:

    I am originally from New Zealand, living in the UK.

    To me, L/100km is a nonsensical measurement in everyday use. To calculate your range, Km/L is more logical and useful - in the same manner as MPG is "logical" to those who use the 'old' system.

    My car is a Mini, using a BMW computer system and I can choose MPG (Imperial), L/100km & Km/L. It averages 18km/L so when the red fuel light comes on denoting 8 Litres left, it means I have 144km left. This is much more useful than 5.4L/100km.

    I believe countries like The Netherlands and Japan use Km/L as standard.

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  4. John Frewen-Lord says:

    Colin:

    I beg to disagree that L/100 km is nonsensical. Actually, both ways of measuring fuel consumption have equal use and practicality. You show a way to make km/L work, I can use the same method with L/100 km. For example, if I know that my car gets 5.8 L/100 km (I would round that to 6, to give me a margin of safety), and I have 8 L left in my tank, then I know I can go for another 130 km. (Alternatively, I can also say that if my destination is 150 km away, then at 6 L/100 km, I need to have at least 9 L left in my tank.)

    So if both methods are equally easy to use, which one should be officially adopted? My argument, as it is for adopting the metric system generally, is to use the same one that (almost) everyone else uses, in the interests of consumer protection and safety. And, for fuel consumption, around the world, that happens to be L/100 km.

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  5. Jake says:

    Hi Colin. You are clearly concerned about what you call range and how much further you can drive before your car stops because there is no fuel left in it. That is not what 'L/100 km' is about. It is about fuel consumption. It is how economically the car engine uses the fuel. My own car actually indicates my 'range' - how far I can drive on the fuel still left in the tank - as well as my average fuel consumption in L/100 km (and it is interesting to see the latter figure go down when I am out of town and driving on motorways at a constant speed). I do not agree at all that km/L is more logical or useful. How far I can drive on a litre of fuel will very much depend on my driving behaviour and speed. The indication of fuel economy (consumption) in L/100 km, calculated on an urban and motorway driving cycle, is one of the things many car buyers look for today when buying a car. Manufacturers have been working hard for years to bring the consumption down against the backdrop of rising fuel prices. The indication of km/L provides me with no such information at all. Also, I do not think it contributes much to road safety to be concerned about how much further you can drive on the road (or heavens forbid the motorway) before your car stops because it has no fuel left!

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  6. Martin Vlietstra says:

    Quoting fuel consumption in L/100 km is actually quoting the price of motoring - the litre of fuel is the currency used and 100 km is the unit quantity that one buys. In exactly the same way, we might buy bananas at 85p/kg - in this case the currency used is pence and the unit quantity bought is 1 kg.

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  7. BrianAC says:

    The current Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will be an interesting test for the media.
    As far as I have seen so far all the official data is metric as one would expect, (the baton 1.6 kg, travel distance a nice round 190,000 km), but all media reports so far seem to have been converted to Imperial.
    Now, as most, if not all commonwealth countries broadcast in English I wonder if the UK media will expect them all to use their Imperial units, or will the countries concerned have to re-translate them back into metric?

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