We take a look at a uniquely British problem faced by our media and in particular the BBC, namely which system of measurement units to use.
On 23 December 2014, this headline and story appeared in the London Evening Standard:
“Father crushed by falling tree tells how he cheated death by millimetres
A father who escaped death ‘by millimetres’ when he was crushed by a tree … today said it was a miracle to be able to spend Christmas with his wife and daughter.
Carlos Rocha, 30, remains in hospital almost two months after the 60ft tree crashed on top of him in Belgravia.”
We have all come across similar examples of a mixture of measurement units in the media, and they illustrate the daily dilemma faced by editors: which units to use?
Now that the majority of the population in Britain have been taught metric units at school, these might be the obvious choice, particularly for media seeking a younger audience. But the readership of newspapers tends towards older generations, hence the fondness of certain titles for ‘legacy’ units.
The dilemma is brought into sharp focus at the BBC, which attempts to please its audiences, government, licence payers and a range of other interests, and succeeds occasionally in upsetting all of them.
In an attempt to bring some order into this muddled situation, the BBC has added a “Weights and measures” section to its BBC news style guide. This may be found at:
The style guide adopts a ‘horses for courses’ approach – metric here and Imperial there, depending on circumstances. An extract from the guide, illustrating this approach appears here:
UKMA has concerns about the approach adopted in the BBC news style guide, in particular its failure to follow internationally agreed rules for the use of metric units. These concerns were raised with the Director of BBC News and Current Affairs. UKMA’s letter and his response appear here:
UKMA has some sympathy for the BBC, facing a dilemma when setting out a media policy on measurement units in a country which encourages and occasionally requires the use of two different measurement systems, and we responded to the BBC accordingly. UKMA’s response began:
“We can understand your difficulties in preparing a style guide which covers both Imperial measures, for which there are few rules, and metric measures, which follow internationally-recognised rules. On reflection, perhaps we could suggest that the BBC style guide should make this distinction and point out that if using SI units, then the rules of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) should be followed.”
This letter appears in full here:
This article illustrates how far we have to travel before the UK has a single, simple and universal measurement system, understood by all and familiar to all – a situation taken for granted in most other countries around the world. It also shows how the media can contribute to achieving this goal and how their problems with measurement units will continue in the mean time.