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.
‘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.
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.