Official BBC Measurement Policy

As we become used to metric measures for social distancing, Ronnie Cohen, one our frequent contributors, looks at the measurement policy of our national broadcaster. Apparently, it is the over 50’s who are responsible for the muddle.

I recently wrote to the BBC on two occasions about mixing metric and imperial units and about giving imperial conversions for metric units on the BBC News website. The BBC replies reveal its official measurement policy on the use of metric and imperial units.

My first inquiry referred to a 30 second video about a new motorbike handlebar wheelie world speed record that showed the following caption:

“Speed 109.2 mph
Distance: 200 metres”

I pointed out that if you wanted to calculate how long it took to ride 200 metres at 109.2 mph, it would be needlessly awkward and require a conversion from metric to imperial or imperial to metric and that it would be much easier to work out if the speed was given in km/h or even m/s. You can find the BBC video at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/newsbeat-53828187.

I asked the BBC the following questions about the illogical mixing of units in the video:

“As one of your primary functions is education, why do you mix metric and imperial units in this way? Why do you blindly follow convention in using mph? I suspect that you have been influenced by the Department for Transport and the fact that speed limits on British roads are in mph. Shouldn’t you educate the British public about metric speed limits such as km/h and m/s?”

On another online BBC article about the Dounreay nuclear site, I wrote about the BBC convention of giving imperial conversions for metric units:

“The UK has had 40 years of metric education. Teaching the metric system has been a requirement since 1974. Despite this, the BBC feels that it must give a conversion in feet. Here is the sentence used in the story about the Dounreay nuclear site:
‘Built in the 1950s, it plunges 65.4m (214.5ft) below ground.’

The BBC may think that it is being helpful when it gives imperial conversions for metric units. In reality, it just encourages people to ignore the metric and look at the imperial, if that is what is most familiar to them. It undermines metric education in schools. Metres are widely used in the UK. So why does the BBC feel obliged to provide a conversion in feet?

The BBC’s mission is the educate, inform and entertain. If the BBC thinks that metres and other metric units are unfamiliar, it is the BBC’s job to educate and inform the public about the metric system.

Please stop giving imperial conversions and encourage your viewers and listeners to become familiar with metric units. We all need a measurement that everyone can use and understand. We don’t need two systems.”

I received the following reply about measurement usage at the BBC in response:

“Although metric is in use in some areas of life in the UK, the country has never switched fully over to the system, which is why we retain miles on our roads and pints in our pubs.

The BBC has no overall guidance on this issue but suggests that we consider the likely audience for our output, so we will generally give measurements in imperial with conversions to metric. But we aim to use common sense when providing information. We use kilometres when reporting on metric countries (converted to imperial). Our science coverage generally uses metric, as that is the preferred option in that discipline. When writing largely for a younger audience, we will use metric.

However, while schools have been teaching metric for many years, we must recognise that one-third of the UK population is over 50 and unlikely to have learned the system this way. For us to adopt one system would potentially mean alienating 20 million people who contribute funding to the BBC.

We must also recognise that we have a large international readership of our website and consider who will be reading our stories. So a story from the US talks about miles and lbs while one from Europe will refer initially to km and kg.

Ultimately the audience, above all other sources, plays a key role in determining the language we use; if they do not understand, we are not doing our job.”

The BBC used almost the same standard text in response to my complaint about mixing metres and miles in the motorbike world speed record video. The over-50’s have had almost half a century to become familiar with metric units. The BBC has a patronising attitude towards older people by implying that they cannot understand metric units and that they would feel alienated if they only used metric units. Has the BBC done any research to back up their claims about older people? In any case, the BBC has a duty to inform, educate and entertain. They are failing to inform and educate the public about the metric system and are using imperial conversions instead. The BBC admits that the UK’s failure to complete metrication influences its own mixed usage of metric and imperial measurement units hence its measurement usage is a reflection of the measurement mess we are in.

You can find the online BBC articles about the Dounreay nuclear site with imperial conversions for metric units at:

23 thoughts on “Official BBC Measurement Policy”

  1. On more than one occasion I read on the BBC website that in certain circumstances political demonstrations are not permitted within “half a mile of Parliament”. The actual legislation says “one kilometre”. According to Google Earth the distance between the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and Nelson’s column is 821 metres, so I remind the BBC that if somebody were to be arrested for demonstrating on Trafalgar Square, the BBC would look very silly if the person quoted the BBC as part of their defence. In every instance the BBC editors quickly changed the offending article very quickly.

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  2. Being told that a cricket ball is travelling at 90 mph means very little to me (except that it is fast). Likewise, being told that a cricket ball is travelling 150 km/h also means very little to me. Now tell me that the cricket ball is travelling at 40 m/s and with the knowledge that the distance between the two sets of stumps is 20.12 metres I know that the batsman has about 0.5 second to read the ball and play his stroke. (Actually, it is a 12% less because the distance from batting crease to batting crease is 17.68 metres). For the record, a tennis court is 23.77 metres from baseline to baseline, so the same logic regarding mph, km/h and m/s applies here.

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  3. Though not as bad as using Imperial, the BBC World Service did a strange thing tonight by reporting the wild fires in Paraguay as being exacerbated by the high temperatures of “over 40 degrees Centigrade”.

    OK, I’ll take it that any day of the week over there use of Fahrvegnuegen units, but really? “Centigrade”? Where have these people been all these years? Anyone have a clue? (I’m genuinely baffled!)

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  4. The BBC is between a rock and a hard place. It doesn’t want to ‘alienate’ viewers over 50. I ask myself if people over 50 years of age were given nearly half a century to get used to decimal currency when that came in. No, of course they weren’t. But back in the early 70s the government ran a proper information campaign for the currency changeover, some of the pre-decimal coins were repurposed where they fitted into the decimal series, and everyone got on with their lives, accepted the new coins and moved on.

    I realise the BBC is trying to please everyone and be all things to all people. But as has been pointed out, its remit includes educating and informing, so if there is an educational deficiency as regards metric teaching, then the BBC should step up to the mark and fill the gap. The real solution to move everyone on would be to remove the imperial from the ‘built environment’ in which people live, change the road signs to metric and stop pretending that speed and distance on roads
    have to be shown in imperial units. But that requires a coherent plan on the part of the Government (and coherency seems to be in short supply at the present time).

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  5. Over-fifties? That’s a very crude approximation. I’m nearly sixty, and I was taught the metric system and decimal currency from the get-go in my British primary school (much to my relief at the time). Maybe they don’t realise they’ve been trotting out that excuse for so long that the conveyor belt has moved on.

    But if the BBC really believes us over-fifties are that incapable of keeping up with the modern world, why don’t they also convert all prices to pounds, shillings and pence to ensure our aged brains don’t overheat trying to cope with the “new” money? You’re dead right about them being patronising.

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  6. Ezra,

    The word is spelled as Fahrvergnügen.

    As for centigrade, that term is still used widely in Spanish speaking countries. They obviously didn’t get the menu. The reporter obviously was ignorant of the fact that Celsius replaced centigrade in 1948.

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  7. Martin, Jake & Robert,

    I’m sure the over 50 age was chose to give this age group of people some sort of a significant minority status to justify the continued use of imperial. I’m sure the BBC is bombarded by both sides with letters demanding they drop metric or drop imperial. Probably about equal amounts.

    But at some time they will have to bite the bullet and realise that the metric system has been the national system for the majority of the population’s lives and there are too few are still around who refuse to learn SI and continue to be expected to be pampered in imperial.

    It is also possible that the majority of people who bother to purchase their “news” either in print or on-line are in fact older and the younger generation doesn’t give a hoot about their “news” and ignores them, making their domestic readership balanced towards those that prefer imperial.

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  8. I’m well over sixty, and was taught in metric units at school. Where are these mysterious over-50s who don’t understand?

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  9. Well, first, congratulations on actually getting a reply, I do not think I ever have.
    On the point of fee payer, I have just started having to pay for my ‘over 75 years’ licence. That maybe why they feel they cannot trot out the ‘over 50′ bit. That ’50’ is in any case way off the mark, nearer 60 or 65 I would have thought. My 50+ year old nephews and nieces WERE fully conversant with metric (much to my delight) at primary school level, that has been knocked out of them since, thus they come under the hard done by over 50’s that do not understand.
    It peeves me endlessly that I have to endure a mixed muddle of measures, this week of rain it seems inches are back in both national and local forecasts, even if the on screen shot is in mm.
    I do give them credit for the online science section which has been fully metric for some time now, coincidentally it changed suddenly after one of my letters and has never gone back.
    “Although metric is in use in some areas of life in the UK, …” I do take issue with this, “in some areas of life”? Well if the BBC refers all of science, technology, sport, retail and engineering as “some areas” all I can say is that is a pretty big sum!

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  10. Brian AC:

    The last paragraph in your post above would make an excellent first paragraph for another letter to the BBC!

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  11. I’m 72 years old now. My first full-time job in a drawing office was fifty years ago and the office had just started using SI measurements for all documentation. I started the job with some trepidation because all my schooling had all been in imperial but by the end of my first day of work I was completely won over by the ease of working with metric measurements. No more adding or subtracting strings of foot, inch and fraction dimensions (No calculators those days). No more trying to understand what an acre or a super foot of material was. Weights and measurements stopped being cumbersome, almost became fun and suddenly made sense.
    I subsequently worked as a contract draftsman so I changed jobs frequently. Every office I worked in, nearly a hundred in my lifetime, worked exclusively in the International System. That was how it was then and as it is now. I couldn’t see any reason to keep that ease of measurement confined to my workplace so I started thinking in metric for everything. The imperial measurements I grew up with soon started to fade into obscurity and I stopped thinking of things like my height in feet and inches or my weight in stones completely. I have to resort to a calculator when I’m confronted with most non-metric measurements now.
    The building and engineering industries were the first but I can’t think of any occupation these days that is not using SI measurements so there’s no valid reason anybody would want to use something more complicated outside of work other than pig-headedness and a stubborn irrational resistance to change. The BBC shouldn’t be appeasing those people, they should be catering for people who are open-minded enough to move forward.

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  12. Cliff,

    I wonder how many people were in your shoes, that is despite not learning SI in school spent the last 50 years learning SI units practically on the job. How did people who continue to resist the metric system even to this day function in a market, on the job and with the media when metric units are encountered? Were they that isolated from the outside world or did they willfully put blinders over their eyes and plugs in their ears so as not to be exposed to SI units in the market place, on the job or when encountering SI units in the media? What about those that did learn SI in school? What is their excuse for not knowing SI to this day?

    So how much longer is society expected to pamper those who deliberately refused to learn and use SI units? Isn’t it time that society starts to punish these types by denying them access to non-SI information as a means to prevent their resistance disease from spreading to yet a newer generation? It is time for the government to start taxing businesses and institutions that refuse to use SI completely and use the money to complete the metrication change where it is lacking, like road signs.

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  13. Cliff:

    An interesting post about your own personal experience with SI. My own was a private personal experience: I was working in Germany at the time and I had to wallpaper a flat. I picked up the metric tape and simply measured up how many square metres of paper I would need. The number you get out of a single roll is normally shown on the roll (of course, that also depends on factors such as whether the paper is patterned or not). I don’t think I really thought about it. I certainly don’t remember having ‘experimented’ with SI or being a fervent enthusiast before that. My exposure had come from driving on the Continent, seeing numbers that added up (and synchronised with a metric odometer), and not even thinking about it really. It simply made sense. I don’t think I had even heard of ‘SI’ at the time, just ‘metric measurement’.

    The problem as I see it lies largely with the NHS for not routinely communicating with the public in SI. By all means have conversion charts available but patients should be encouraged to know their bodily measures in SI. I don’t really understand why doctors and nurses don’t do this. It’s probably because there is no incentive for them to do so. But it mainly lies with the Government, which runs the NHS, for not having a joined-up enough approach to see that what students learn at school should be relevant to their own lives, certainly in something as mundane as a system of measurement. The BBC gets a lot of stick, and on the whole rightly so, but I do sort of understand the feeling that they have to ‘pander’ to all parts of society (and I chose my verb wisely) as they have to please the general licence payer. Governments past and present are responsible for having allowed this situation to drag on for so long with no end in sight. There is no justification for the argument I have heard that ‘there is no public clamour’ for full metrication. There is no public clamour for all kinds of things but they are necessary all the same.

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  14. When I lived in France using metric came totally naturally. As others have expressed, using metric just makes sense. Facile comme bonjour! 😉
    Frankly, returning to the States was very jarring for many months. Not sure I’m still totally over it after all these many decades! <:-0

    In retrospect the missed opportunity by the Labour government in the 1960's to convert road signs left a huge hole that the English Luddites have driven a HGV through to thwart full metrication in the UK. Think back to how much easier it would have been and the positive knock-on effects of promoting metric. (Like the Swedes when they converted to driving on the right, doing all that back then would have been a walk in the park compared to today.)

    Nonetheless, the experience of road sign conversion in Ireland demonstrates that it can be done effectively. Certainly distance signs can be quickly converted and decals can be put on speed limit signs. Maybe under PM Starmer? (Who knows.)

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  15. I’m another person who thinks the ‘Over 50’s’ excuse is getting tired and I honestly think the BBC is sending out the exact same email as 10 years ago as I’m sure I’ve received this one too.

    And I’m fast approacing 53. I can clearly recall my primary school in Northampton where we were encouraged to play with small cubes that could be attatched to each other that were exactly 1 cm cubed. I clearly recall the white plastic rulers with markings along one side with cm and mm indications and nothing on the other side. I have no recollection of feet or inches ever being mentioned. Right the way through to leaving school both maths and science lessons used metric exclusively. I also recall a multiple choice question on an O-Level maths exam which asked which of 1 ml, 10 ml, 100 ml, 1000 ml, would fit into a tea cup.

    I must have missed the Metric to Imperial conversion classes yet still have to do just that on a regular basis because the country hasn’t kept up with my education.

    I also have to remember to switch the odometer on my car from km to miles whenever I take my car for a service so that my service book doesn’t cause any issues in the future!

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  16. Ezra,

    I don’t think road sign metrication would have made much a difference. Canada and the UK are about the same when it comes to resistance. Canada metricated its road signs and the UK didn’t. Both countries have experienced the same level of resistance with weighing and pricing of goods in the markets. Due to Canada’s proximity to the US, Canada may be somewhat less metric in industry than the UK. So where the UK lacks in road sign metrication it makes up for in engineering and industry.

    Contrast this to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, where the education was fully metric, every aspect of life is metric and the population has a positive attitude towards the use of the metric units. What is the difference?

    It is the media. In these three countries the media sided with metrication, printed positive articles and helped in the education of the population and encouraged the population to move forward with metrication. 50 years later, these three countries and many more have pretty much forgotten imperial units.

    Contrast this to the Canada, the UK and the US. In each case, the media took a negative and strong anti-metric stance. The metric system was labelled by the media, as communistic, anti-freedom, an attack on the national culture, against human nature, etc. Despite some progress in Canada and the UK, the media is still attacking the metric system to prevent the government was making any further progress and in the US from even trying to get to the level that Canada and the UK has achieved.

    If you want to blame someone, blame your media and those who in the media continue attack the metric system.

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  17. Alex,

    I just responded to Ezra with a reason why metrication has failed in Canada, the UK and the US. It is the media. The BBC is part of the media. I’m sure the BBC was populated by pro-metric reporters and news casters back in the early days and presented a more positive attitude towards metrication in the past, but as these people have been replaced over time, the replacements have taken a more negative attitude towards metrication in line with the anti-metric printed media.

    These reporters and journalists aren’t scientists, engineers, not even financial managers who have studied which set of units brings lower costs and increases profits for businesses. They don’t have the brains to even bother to do the research or if they do, they don’t like the results and thus ignore them.

    For whatever reason they have made the metric system a product of attack they don’t seem to care what harm they do to the economy and population in general. Maybe they hate those who have made a success of themselves in a business or engineering fields using the metric system. Maybe they are jealous of other people’s success using the metric system and the only reason they can get even is to attack the metric system.

    Maybe someday soon there will be a change in the government that won’t take to kindly to the media and many of these fake journalists may find themselves not only on the outside looking in, but permanently put in a place that isolates them from those in society that bring about positive change. Hopefully, the sooner the better.

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  18. The main reason I bring up metrication of road signs is that the most prominent instance of Imperial *only* in British television programs, interviews of Brits, etc is “miles” instead of “kilometers” and “mph” instead of “km/h”.

    What I have observed in Canadian TV shows, interviews, etc. is that they always use “kilometers” instead of “miles” and “km/h” instead of “mph” despite being in their own deeper metric muddle than the UK. I attribute this to the presence of metric road signs and all related documentation for cars, driving tests, etc using “kilometers” and “km/h”.

    We have seen a similar evolution in Ireland after their own conversion of road signs.

    Interestingly, Canada also switched at the same time as road signs to “Celsius” only and have never looked back. Canadians don’t even have a clue these days (or for some time now) what Fahrenheit temps mean. So, conversion can work despite the odds, thankfully.

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  19. Cliff:
    My experience is similar to yours and when I started work in the Land Survey section of the Nottingham City Engineers Department in August 1970, the first thing my new boss, a WW2 Royal Engineers veteran said to me was, “forget all about imperial measures because you’ll never use them again”…………..and he was right! I’m still working and only on extremely rare occasions has anyone asked me to convert to imperial but I’ve never measured in it.
    I suppose I was lucky to have worked in an industry that was one of the ‘early adopters’ when the Ordnance Survey created the National Grid system in 1936 which is generally known in my profession as OSGB36. It won’t be too long until its centenary
    and I hope the Ordnance Survey celebrate it.

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  20. Tim,

    I hope you told the person who asked for an imperial conversion that you didn’t know how and if he wanted it done, he would have to do it himself.

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  21. Ezra,

    Canadians actually do understand Fahrenheit. The only time Celsius is used is for weather broadcasts, but the majority of home thermostats and ovens are sold in Fahrenheit mode as the default. They can be changed with some effort, but most don’t bother.

    One good thing for Canada is that as far as I know there are no active anti-metric organisations and Canadians are OK with the status quo whereas Britain has at least two known anti-metric organisations who want to reverse things back to the way it was pre-1970, including pre-decimal currency.

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  22. @Daniel Jackson

    Just want to clarify that I said what I did about Canadians and Fahrenheit based on a radio program I was listening to a few years ago where an American host mentioned a temperature in Fahrenheit to a woman in Halifax and she replied that she had no idea what that meant. Also, someone I worked with who was Canadian told me that even after working several years in the USA he still had trouble understanding Fahrenheit.

    Plus, in my hotel room in Victoria during my honeymoon the thermostat showed only degrees Celsius.

    So, just a few anecdotal data points, nothing scientific! 🙂

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  23. Just heard another report on Brexit over the BBC World Service from a reporter in Dublin (with a clear Irish accent) on where Ireland stands with respect to the latest impasse on the Brexit negotiations between David Frost and Michel Barnier. In that report the journalist quite naturally referred to a relevant distance of some sort using “kilometres” (pronouncing it as the Australians do, namely, KILL-oh-mee-ters) as if he had been doing it all his life.

    This is not the first time I have heard this use of pure metric from Irish folks on the media. No surprise there since the Irish have been using “kilometres” and “km/h” for quite some time now ever since they metricated road signs.

    Alas, a hard Brexit might postpone metrication of UK road signs since road haulage traffic could come to screeching halt as the lorry parks in Kent fill up to capacity and EU drivers can’t get over from Calais.

    Of course, if Scotland decides to leave the UK (witness the latest polls) and joins the EU, I would fully expect them to convert road signs to metric for both practical and political purposes.

    And if a border poll in Ireland comes out in favour of unification, well, the road signs in the northern counties will get converted very quickly as well.

    Where would that leave “Global Britain”? Not so sure about that given where things seem to be headed. Let’s see what 2021 brings.

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