BBC told to stop undermining the National Measurement System

In its response to a recent BBC consultation the UK Metric Association (UKMA) has called on the BBC to live up to its declared mission and hence to support – and not to undermine – the exclusively metric National Measurement System.

In September 2013 the BBC Trust (i.e. not the BBC management) opened a consultation on “the Corporation’s news and current affairs output that is broadcast or available to the whole of the UK”.  The consultation closed on 13 December.  The invitation to organisations can be read at this link.

UKMA’s 1800 word submission, which can be read at this link, begins with a short summary statement:

“In accordance with its mission to “inform, educate and entertain” the BBC should acknowledge its responsibility to support and not undermine the National Measurement System, which is exclusively metric. It should adopt a policy of making metric (SI) units the primary, default system in all television, radio and online output, and this policy should be monitored and enforced.  The relevant sections of the BBC’s style guide should be rewritten accordingly.”

The submission continues with a quotation from the National Measurement Office, illustrating why a single, verifiable system of measurement is an important national objective. This contrasts with the indiscriminate use of both metric and imperial units in the media, which is believed to be a major factor in prolonging the muddle of measurement systems. UKMA has described this muddle elsewhere as “a very British mess”, which results in ” mutual incomprehension, conversion errors, wasted educational time in attempting to learn two systems, additional costs, mistakes and accidents”.

The BBC, despite its key position as the national broadcaster, is no exception to this “mess”, as its news and current affairs output is “inconsistent and undisciplined and does not appear to reflect any considered policy on the matter”. The UKMA paper goes on to argue that, as the national broadcaster, and in accordance with its mission, the BBC has a duty to uphold the National Measurement System.

The submission quotes the response of a former Deputy Director-General that the BBC must reflect society, and since society uses a mixture of two systems, the BBC must follow suit.  The circular and self-perpetuating nature of this argument is exposed.

The Deputy Director-General had also denied that the Corporation has no policy on measurement units.  In response, he claimed that the BBC’s policy is to expect its contributors to use the measurement units most appropriate to their target audience.

A recent incident illustrates the hollowness of this claim.

The BBC’s flagship Radio 4 news and current affairs programme is the morning daily “Today” programme, broadcast from 06:00 to 09:00 Monday to Friday and 07:00 to 09:00 on Saturdays. It has over 7 million listeners and is compulsory listening for all who are interested in politics and current affairs, including most politicians and senior civil servants.  It can be assumed that its audience is relatively well informed and educated and can be expected to understand metric units of measurement (even if they do not necessarily always use them for everyday purposes).

As would be expected, the “Today” programme features weather reports and forecasts, including of course temperatures. Although at one time weather presenters sometimes gave temperatures in both Celsius and Fahrenheit, they are now almost exclusively in Celsius – even at the height of summer.  Clearly, presenters have decided that it is no longer necessary to make special concessions to people who claim to be unable to understand Celsius.

However, a recent item on the programme concerned energy conservation and the optimum temperature for central heating systems. The presenter of this item was none other than the doyen of presenters, John Humphrys, and – guess what – his target temperature for central heating was 70 degrees!  Obviously, he was using the obsolete Fahrenheit scale (although he didn’t say so), regardless of the fact that all other temperatures on the programme had been given in the Celsius scale.

While this incident is unimportant in itself, what it illustrates is that, in choosing their measurement units, presenters do not consider the needs of their audience.  If, for the “Today” target audience, it was appropriate to use Celsius for the weather forecast, how can it be right to use Fahrenheit for room temperature? Clearly, many BBC broadcasters use the units with which they themselves are most comfortable or familiar, regardless of the needs of the audience.  If the BBC management really does have such a policy, then it certainly is not followed or enforced.

UKMA’s submission concludes with several recommendations:

  •  The BBC should adopt the International System of Units (SI), also known as the metric system, as the primary and default system of measurement units to be used in the BBC’s news and current affairs output that is broadcast to the whole of the UK in television, radio or online.
  •   In written material (whether online or on television screen) the correct metric symbols should be used in the correct manner as prescribed by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM).
  •   The relevant section of the BBC’s current Style Guide should be withdrawn and completely rewritten paying regard to the above recommendations.
  •   This policy should be published and enforced.
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52 Responses to BBC told to stop undermining the National Measurement System

  1. derekp says:

    Brian AC writes:

    Now as much as I like the joke, I hope it does not catch on! Maybe I will attach that JPEG to my next email to BBC SE when I complain.
    Now this bit about metric on the web and Imperial on the (BBC) TV has never gone unnoticed. This leads me to my belief that this is all deliberate. It is not following any ‘rules’ nor ‘guide lines’ nor ‘consistency’. It is down to the personal whims of the reporter or announcer. This is why ‘stones’ seem to be used on BBC SE so often for inanimate objects, yet no where else, ever in my life. It should in fact be hundredweight (cwt) if thy want to ‘correctly’ be Luddite about the issue. RIP the 35 cwt Transit.

  2. tony walker says:

    When a figure is given to me in miles I can instantly relate it to somewhere local. In kms I struggle. To try and watch the incredible BBC documentaries where all distances are given in kms, is painful and frustrating. Whereas metrication is a far easier system to use, it makes no sense to give us measurements we have to guess at. Metric weights have readily replaced the imperial, but only because the choice is available. Kms is a different thing. It isn't a national measure and there is nowhere in this country where it has replaced the mile, therefore the majority have little idea how far 35 kms is. The majority would know how far 35 miles is, they were brought up on it. The BBC should perhaps use either system of metric or imperial, except this one. Until the road signs and distances change from miles to kms, the BBC should not, in any circumstances, give us distances in kms and expect us to understand how far that is.


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