UKMA has received a message from a viewer of BBC’s ‘Autumn Watch’. This article includes the message and the response.
This is the message recently left on UKMA’s web site:
I started watching my most beloved Autumn Watch last night which was going great until Chris Packham started giving distances in kilometres instead of miles. The infection spread to other presenter so can I ask why the rush to change our way of life to metricfication? (I made that word up!)
I would like to know if anyone from your organisation put the idea in my much beloved BBC to force its presenters down the Euro-metric route?
In the current Brexit climate I’d go quiet on forcing anyone to do anything metric if I were you.
This is UKMA’s response:
“Thank you for your message passed on using the contact form on UKMA’s web site.
I can assure you that our organisation has not put the idea to our beloved BBC that it should force presenters to use metric measures.
Some years ago we approached the BBC to ask about its policy on measurement units, and we were informed it does not have one. The decision on which measurement units to use is left to the producer of the programme. Often commercial considerations may apply. If the BBC is targeting the production at an American audience, as recently occurred with an Attenborough series, then it might use feet and miles but not yards, pounds and tons but not stones, but if it hopes to sell a programme to Commonwealth countries or worldwide then metric measures are likely to be used.
Nature programmes raise a different issue. The BBC’s purpose is to educate, inform and entertain. Nature programmes may do all three. And educating and informing may involve science. Science in Britain has used metric units since the start of the twentieth century. I remember being taught in metric units at school in the 1950s.
The BBC also needs to take account of its likely audience in the UK. Around 60% of the UK population has been taught only metric units at school. My three sons, who were born in the 1970s, are familiar with metric and regard imperial measures as an annoying and confusing anachronism, even on road traffic signs. Some older people may prefer imperial measures and may be the target audience for some programmes, but they are a declining proportion of the population and we can expect to see fewer programmes made with them in mind.
You mention Brexit. As you may be aware, Britain began the changeover to metric long before 1973 when it joined the Common Market, the EU’s predecessor. For example:
- The use of the metric system for all purposes in the UK became legal in 1897.
- The military adopted the metric system for mapping in 1919.
- The BBC began broadcasting in 1922 using a range of stations calibrated in wavelengths in metres.
- In 1936 the Ordnance survey began the re-triangulation of Britain using metric measures and in 1940 adopted a national metric grid. Maps were then gradually converted to metric scales.
- The Meteorological Office switched from F to C in 1961, and began adding C to broadcasts a year later.
- The UK construction industry began the metric changeover in 1967. I can remember in 1969, when I was working in a design office, the boss came round handing out metric design tables and metric scales. I still have both.
- The dispensing of prescriptions also went metric in 1969.
It seems to me, however, that there may actually be a similarity between the metric changeover and Brexit. In each case some of the older generation are allowing their fondness for the past and their reluctance to move forward to harm the future prosperity of younger generations. We live in a metric world:
- All but a few of the countries of the world have adopted metric as their primary system of measurement.
- 95% of the world’s population live in metric countries.
- The economy of China, a metric country, is likely to exceed in size that of the USA within a few years.
- India, another metric country, will shortly overtake China, as the most populous country in the world.
But it may just be that ‘Autumn Watch’ prefers metric measures not only because they are universal but also because they are simpler, more logical and more widely understood than their imperial counterparts.
The past may be an interesting place to visit, but it is no place to live.