Mis-Communicator of the Week: Met Office

In his recently published book ‘The Secret War’, journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings details the role espionage and secret intelligence played in the Second World War. While there were examples of sacrifice and unbelievably bravery, much of the work which made a real difference to the Allies victory wasn’t the stuff of James Bond legend.

What made a far greater impact on the course of the war - and impacted on the chances of, for example, whether an individual convoy made it across the perilous seas of the north Atlantic - was slow, careful collecting of information, solving mathematical puzzles and spotting trends in data. This was academic work often undertaken by eccentric boffins and Oxbridge Dons working in dreary conditions without fanfare.

Once codes had been cracked and secret intelligence collected decisions had to be made about how to deploy this information in a way that would save lives, affect the course of individuals battles and ultimately the conduct of the war without giving the game away to the enemy. The information also needed to be used in a way that would inform decision making without taking the responsibility for their men’s safety away from local commanders. On the whole this was done well.

Balancing risk was at the heart of how this data was used and is also the driving force behind some recent changes to the way the Met Office communicates. Last year weather warnings were modified to be a sliding scale from yellow to red via amber. The problem is that almost every day in winter some kind of weather warning is in force as a yellow warning is issued if we are due a spot of rain, amber if its getting windy. Immediately this undermines the power of a genuine warning of impending life threatening weather.

This Autumn the Met Office has gone further and copied other weather agencies around the world by naming storms. November in the UK is always pretty windy but, thankfully, killer storms are rare. That didn’t stop the Met Office naming some gusty wind affecting northern Scotland and Northern Ireland as ‘Storm Abigail’. Despite being deemed sufficiently dangerous it merited a name, ‘Abigail’ was only classified with an amber warning.

Not only must parts of the world which suffer terrible cyclones, hurricanes, tornados and other extreme weather think naming a bit of strong wind ridiculous, the Met Office has in place a coding system which is about as clear as labelling on pre-packaged food. Instead of using its intelligence to help us to keep safe the Met Office is issuing information in a form which is confusing, unhelpful and, in all likelihood will just be ignored. When a genuine red warning is issued it is going to be like the boy who cried wolf which is why the Met Office is my Mis-Communicator of the Week.

Mis-Communicator of the Week is written by Ed Staite.