Shoddy media coverage of the floods is a betrayal of every flood victim

The UK has been battered by storm after storm over the last couple of months, causing horrendous flooding across the country and particularly in the Somerset Levels as well as damage at coastal towns battered by towering gale-driven waves. But media coverage has mostly been at the level of dog whistle politics, focused on simplistic calls for more dredging in Somerset and who’s to blame for the lack of said dredging. By concentrating on a simplistic, and actually downright wrong, narrative, the media is betraying every single flood victim by squandering the opportunity to have a proper, national debate about the impact of extreme weather events on our landscape, our towns and our farming communities.

This winter has been the wettest for nearly 250 years. Said The Guardian:

The rainfall measured at the historic Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University in January was greater than for any winter month since daily recording began there in 1767, and three times the average amount.

[…]

A total of 146.9mm of rain fell in January, smashing the previous record of 138.7mm in 1852. The new record is three times the average recorded for the month over the last two and a half centuries. It was also the wettest winter month – December, January or February – ever recorded, beating December 1914, when 143.3mm fell.

In addition, the 45-day period from 18 December saw more rain at Radcliffe than for any such period in the observatory record. The total of 231.28mm demolished the previous high of 209.4mm, which fell from 1 December 1914.

The storms have been relentless, a combinations of high wind, record-breaking rainfall and significant storm surges has meant not just flooding, but damage to coastal regions and essential infrastructure in low-lying land. The West Country is now cut off by rail after the Dawlish line fell in the sea and a landslide blocked the line at Crewkerne.

The Met Office has issued flood warning after flood warning. At the time of writing, across the country there are 16 Severe Flood Warnings, which warn of severe flooding and danger to life, 161 Flood Warnings where immediate action is required, and 233 Flood Alerts where flooding is possible and people should be aware. And the bad weather is going to continue, with the Met Office forecasting unsettled weather through to the end of February, with severe gales and rain possible at times.

With such an unusual and significant weather event causing really serious flooding and destruction, you’d think that the media would take the opportunity to explore the complex issues around water management, flood risk and management, building and planning regulations (and changes thereto), and the impact of climate change. These are, admittedly, difficult subjects with a lot of nuance, but as a nation, we need to have these conversations. We have to learn about these issues and increase our understanding of them.

So what have we got from the media? A pandering to the cheap politics of blame, and a focus on one single intervention, ie dredging.

Let’s tackle dredging first. It is a single, simple intervention which some vocal campaigners from Somerset have claimed would have saved their towns, homes, farms and businesses. It’s a lovely idea, that just dredging two rivers, the Parrett and the Tone, would have prevented the flooding and saved everyone’s homes. Unfortunately, given the amount of rain that has drenched Somerset, that story is simply not true.

Simon Dixon, writing on the River Management Blog, puts it well:

Firstly it is highly doubtful dredging rivers in general, or the Tone & Parrett specifically, would have any appreciable effect on flood events of the magnitude we have witnessed recently. To use one of my trademark analogies, it’s a little like drinking two bottles of wine and suggesting the brandy chaser was the thing that made you drunk.

[…]

Secondly, and most importantly, this issue is completely irrelevant at the present time. The priorities in a natural disaster should be firstly to prevent or minimise loss of life, prevent or minimise damage to infrastructure and to ensure as quick a recovery as possible after the event.

The Science Media Centre quotes, amongst others, Dr Hannah Cloke from the University of Reading:

Dredging would not have prevented the flooding in Somerset. The Prime Minister’s assertion that dredging will provide a long-term solution to flooding is just not backed up by the evidence.

Dredging increases the carrying capacity of river channels, helping more water to flow downstream. But carrying capacity of rivers is just one small part of an area’s drainage pattern and its susceptibility to flooding. Land use, topography, underlying geology, and above all, rainfall levels are also relevant. Given the amount of rain that has fallen, you could have doubled the carrying capacity of every drainage channel in Somerset, at huge cost, and large parts would still have flooded.

But these expert voices are frustratingly missing from most of the media’s coverage. If you believe the news, dredging is all that is needed, and the Government should have dredged last year, as requested by the locals. This narrative is simplistic to a fault, in fact, it’s insultingly simplistic.

“Dredge!” is the call coming from the Somerset Levels, from folk who have been directly affected by this crisis and who are thus highly emotionally involved. But the scientific evidence does not support the position that dredging would have prevented these floods. You only have to look at the scale of the flooding to realise that there’s just too much water to fit down two small rivers, even if they had been dredged.

But the locals say dredge, so the politicians say they will dredge. As Dixon puts it:

[…] the human interest stories on the Somerset Levels dominates the news, and the narrative that has emerged is one of a lack of dredging leading to flooding. The government, against advice of the Chartered Institute for Water & Environmental Management, leading hydrologists and flood scientists, has embraced the dredging narrative and committed to dredging the levels.

Instead of pushing back and asking what the evidence is for dredging, the media has, on the whole, just accepted the claim put to them. They have not dug into the science, examined the claims, or challenged the story laid down by activists or government.

More recently, we’ve had a refocusing of the media narrative on the scapegoating of the Environment Agency, whom Eric Pickles has blamed for the crisis. Also in the blame spotlight is the Government for cutting EA funding, EA boss “little git” Lord Smith for not showing his face in Somerset until forced, and environment secretary Owen Paterson for not doing enough and wearing the wrong shoes on his visit the Somerset. Then, of course, you have the idiocy from Nigel Farage, who seems to be astonishingly talented at saying stupid things and is currently claiming that the UK foreign aid budget should be diverted to deal with the after-effects of the flooding and oh, yes, is also calling for dredging.

These stories are sideshows that divert attention from key information that needs to be communicated in order for people to understand what is happening and why. The blame game can be played later, perhaps after a proper, independent investigation into what happened and, to the extent that we can ever know, why. The kinds of things people need to know now are:

  • Which areas are currently at risk, and what should they do to minimise their exposure to that risk?
  • What is the evidence for different water/flood management interventions, and how do experts decide which interventions are appropriate?
  • How will the government support recovery efforts for those people and businesses affected?

The focus on dredging and on blame is a betrayal of everyone affected by these floods, because it deprives them of crucial information that they need in order to make sense of what has happened to them, and what might happen next. People are trying to understand why this crisis has unfolded the way it did, and feeding them the nonsense spouted by politicians without challenge or facts leaves people believing things that simply aren’t true, and with a sense of anger which is misplaced and corrosive.

Furthermore, reducing the narrative to dredging and blame squanders a chance for us to talk about the long-term impact of climate change, and also isostatic readjustment which is causing Scotland to rise and the South East to sink. We need to talk about just how far we go to save coastal houses and communities, how flood defences can sometimes just move problems downstream, about how we manage uplands, how agricultural subsidies can distort land management decisions in ways that increase the risk of flooding, and how we might need to change key bits of infrastructure.

Some of these conversations are being started now, but the dominant narrative, the headlines, the soundbites, the focus of TV bulletins, is still putting the focus on dredging and blame. We, as a country, need journalists to step out of their ‘juicy gossip’ mindset and tackle these serious issues head on. Get the experts in. Push back against the activists and the politicians. Dig into the science. Get your hands dirty. Do the story justice, and serve properly the people who need you: This year’s flood victims, and those who may be flooded in the future.

5 thoughts on “Shoddy media coverage of the floods is a betrayal of every flood victim

  1. My thoughts exactly! It’s amazing how many of the London media hacks and politicians have suddenly become experts in land use and hydrology – and how none of the major outlets called on engineers for comment.

    The cameras go in to a particularly badly hit area, where people are understandably upset. Politicians and their PR crew follow and talk on camera to some particularly vocal residents who recall that in the past the rivers were dredged. So, notwithstanding the epic amounts of rain that has fallen, the questionable impact that dredging would have even in that area given the record rainfall, and the impact of dredging downstream, suddenly they have their silver bullet and also their werewolf to blame.

    Politicians do this. The media should be thoroughly ashamed at going along with them.

  2. Very well argued. Certain politicians are attempting to make themselves look busy and good by spreading muck around. The interview with Smith on the Today Programme (10/2/14) was particularly interesting.

  3. Thank you Suw – if even part of the time spent covering incorrect science had been spent telling people how to prepare for a flood the impact inside homes may have been less. I’ve not seen one report showing how to block your loo, disconnect your washing machine or weigh down the plug in your sink to reduce how much sewage rises up.

    My other bugbear is reporters standing in flood water – incredibly dangerous and gives a false sense that it is safe.

  4. I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Yesterday’s ‘This Week’ programme discussed dredging and the environment agencies capabilities with guests Paul Daniels, Debbie McGee and Michael Portillo. There can be no doubt of their expertise, experience and competence in these matters. I can think of no higher minds better equipped to inform the public about the current science and research on ecology, hydrology or climate change. Next week there will be a discussion on the historical role of women in politics featuring Jim Davidson, Katie Price, Nigel Farrage and H from Steps.

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