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:
- “Dounreay site available for reuse in the year 2333” (link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-53848766)
- “‘Unrestricted use’ of Dounreay nuclear site in 300 years” (link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-44302985)
- “Next phase of work Dounreay decommissioning planned” (link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-42445819)
- “Dounreay’s shaft to be emptied and demolished” (link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-48036793)